A lens on a society gone adrift

Monday Book Reviews

March 16, 1992|By Arnold R. Isaacs

AS LONG AS NOTHING HAPPENS, NOTHING WILL. By Zhang Jie. Translated by Gladys Yang, Deborah J. Leonard and Zhang Andong. Grove Weidenfeld. 196 pages. $18.95. CHINA achieved material gains in the 1980s. But it also became a society adrift. In unchaining itself from the rigid doctrines of Chairman Mao Zedong, it seemed also to break loose from all its moral and philosophical anchors. Chinese no longer believed in their old revolutionary myths, but found no new ones to replace them.

That disillusion, which underlay the 1989 protest movement centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, also lies at the center of Zhang Jie's "As Long as Nothing Happens, Nothing Will." The five stories in this collection turn a witheringly accurate lens on the absurdity, corruption and hypocrisy of contemporary Chinese society.

"Today's Agenda," for example, portraying a series of meetings in a local bureau of an unnamed government ministry, gives a merciless sketch of China's bureaucracy.

Written mainly in dialogue, as if from transcripts, the story shows a culture of backbiting, buck-passing, and ideological platitudes. Nothing is ever decided, because everyone tries to avoid responsibility for decisions; when an issue is raised, the group invariably changes the subject or finds a reason for delaying action, or simply escapes into a fog of meaningless political slogans.

The most memorable of these stories is the last and longest one. "What's Wrong With Him?" is a series of short episodes set in a government hospital -- a dilapidated, despairing place that becomes a biting metaphor for all of Chinese society.

In one vignette, a doctor finds that a patient's vocal cords were damaged when a respirator was inserted incorrectly. The nurse responsible for the mistake explains that "the lighting in the ward was so poor she hadn't been able to see the oral cavity clearly." In another, a member of the staff, who is leaving on a trip to England, adds the title "Professor" to his visiting card -- but when a friend congratulates him, he explains the title is only borrowed. "Going abroad on an exchange like this you need a suitable academic status. When I get back I'll return it."

In other scenes, a patient dies because the hospital's only working elevator doesn't stop to take him to the operating room; an old cobbler watches helplessly through the windows while doctors try to save his grandson; a demented mortuary attendant, his face "covered with lumpy warts, large and small, like clusters of ripe grapes," flails blindly about the darkened nighttime grounds; a surgeon fantasizes about burning down the staff hostel so he can escape from the single cramped, squalid room he lives in.

At one point, a doctor who narrates several of these episodes pauses to exclaim, "Pay no attention to this nonsense I'm talking; it's simply hallucination."

Anyone familiar with Chinese life will know that Zhang Jie's stories are no hallucination, but a bleakly realistic portrait. Though she wrote them well before the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, they explain, perhaps better than any other work published for American readers, the discontents that led to that tragedy.

"As Long as Nothing Happens, Nothing Will" is brilliant and moving both as literature and as social criticism. It should be read by everyone who wonders what revolution, reform and repression have made of the oldest and most populous civilization on Earth.

Arnold R. Isaacs spent six years in Asia as a journalist in the 1970s. In 1990-91 he taught at universities in Shanghai and Xi'an, China. He lives in Pasadena.

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