In Franz Kafka’s The Trial—the greatest novel ever written on the subject of a hapless individual in the clutches of a vast totalitarian state—the protagonist, Josef K., wakes up one morning to find two men waiting to arrest him. Bewildered, Josef wants to know what his offence is. He is told that he will learn everything “in good time,” at the trial. As he waits for the trial, hoping that it will reveal some official error, Josef actually begins to inspect his past for possible crimes or offences. Since everybody considers him guilty, he must be guilty in some way.
It is this brutal comedy of the Kafkaesque kind that is called up by the title of Kang Zhengguo’s marvellous Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, a memoir of a life spent, for the most part, being pushed around, incarcerated, and exploited by the Chinese state, and of drafting confessions to the authorities so as to be forgiven his supposed crimes.
What exactly were these crimes? A feature of the two most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, those of communist Russia and China, was not only the maddening degree of conformity expected in public life, but also the level of encroachment on the private life of citizens. Even the most insignificant action could thus have a political dimension. A note in a diary or possession of a banned book could make a person a felon.
Thus, what is appalling about Zhengguo’s story is that he is never even, until very late in life, an actual dissident. Instead, he is from boyhood a bookworm and a dreamer, more interested in the classics in his grandfather’s library than in the political education classes at school. He detests politics: He wants to be part of no group, to subscribe to no dogma. But for this very reason, he sticks out like a sore thumb in an atmosphere of suffocating conformism. Everybody around him thinks he is secretly—to use another word much favoured in communist terminology—a “reactionary,” and he attracts the attention of the authorities.
On one occasion, he is imprisoned for remarks made in a diary, which are held to represent a thought crime; on another, for writing to a Russian university requesting a copy of Doctor Zhivago. Each of these crimes goes into a dossier on him kept by the state, and each time he is arrested, he is encouraged to submit a written statement confessing to all his crimes to save the state the trouble of having to file actual charges. “Lenience for confessors—severity for resistors!” he is often told.
But what is most thrilling about Confessions is that it is not just a simple document of official persecution. Rather, it throbs with the vitality of unlikely friendships made in prison and labour re-education camps, of the exact sensory texture of days spent working in a brick kiln and in a plantation, of the brief opportunities for furtive romances, listening to banned stations on the radio, and reading proscribed texts.
In Zhengguo’s narration, the simplest activities take on a vivid, burnished quality.
Although it contains much by way of description and comparatively little by way of abstract analysis, Zhengguo’s book is all the more powerful for being so rooted in the particulars of his own life. Jailed for his love of books and of the right to unfettered thought, Zhengguo’s own book is an unforgettable indictment of the draconian police state and—through its gentleness and courtesy, love of life’s small pleasures and awareness of moral complexity—a repudiation of every perverse collectivist doctrine that has blighted millions of lives in the 20th century.
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