"Grass Soup" is an extraordinary little book dealing with the infamous Chinese "labour camps" during the worst years of the Communist regime, when the horrors of Bejing rhymed with the ones of Pyongyang.
At that time, Zhang Xianliang was barely 23 years old but already labelled as a right-wing extremist and an enemy of the Chinese people. Zhang was an "intellectual", a pernicious, disgusting semi-human sub-specie created by the evil influence of the American imperialism in the socialist Chinese motherland.
And yet, due to his status of a potentially "useful intellectual" being only mildly corrupted by the Western enticements and having an undeniable skill for writing sharp tazebao and elegiac poems to the Great Helmsman, Zhang only needed to be "re-educated".
A strict and extended diet of green grass and red ideology under the blue skies of China would have healed comrade Xianliang, just in case he managed to pull himself together and keep himself alive.
And Zhang Xianliang got by. Despite all odds and difficulties he survived to his re-education and, years later, wrote a book out of the dry notes he took during the long hard months he spent at the labour camp. Zhang wrote no diary. The tiredness of his body and the fear of the recoils he could have experienced has his notes being read by the authorities (as they eventually did), forced Zhang not to leave a written trace of his daily torments.
Zhang was no Primo Levi and no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He wrote "Grass Soup" as a free man and when his own mind had cooled off, but his goal was not to reveal the horrors of the Chinese re-education scheme or show the existence of a labour camps archipelago in China, but rather to look back at himself in those days.
"What I was thinking to when I wrote down those dry monotonous notes and what lies beyond their apparent repetitiveness? And how much the impact of hunger into my stomach and brainwashing into my mind annihilated the intellectual betrayed by his brain making a self-preservation instinct driven man out of me?".
Zhang Xianliang never poses these two straight questions to himself here, but both are implicitly stressed out all through the pages of this book.
The wonder of "Grass Soup" is that is a heartbraking story, the account of a small personal victory into a wider national defeat, but there is humour and even fun here. Mr Xianliang chose a style which combines miracolously well unforgettable scenes of death and human abjection with equally memorable moments of temporary peace of mind through laughters, one's fill and moral resistance.
The author spending a whole afternoon just eating kilos and kilos of melons and pissing in a grove or the vain pursuit up and down the river bank of a cow with her tempting udders full of milk, are comic highlights. But then again these "Life is Beautiful-like" moments were brought by hunger and desperation.
The fact that Mr Xianliang survived to his re-education was due to his ability of not giving up in the darkest times, behaving with well-chosen impulsiveness and with the awareness that the thin line separating the saved from the drowned was partly luck but, above all, a matter of self-discipline.