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Torment and blessing

I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller

This is the speech given by Nobel Literary laureate Herta Müller at the presentation of Liao Yiwu's new book in Berlin this August. The book is published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder" and is due for publication in English as "Testimonials". The quotes from the book are therefore not from an official translation.

"What a vast stage, with the paravent of the mountain as a backdrop – theatre, writing and real life, it cannot be separated, but then why does it hurt so much," Liao Yiwu writes in his prison book. And writing he calls: "... a drilling fixation like a fly that buzzes disgustingly and you must be on guard against flat hands." "Why does it hurt so much" and being "on guard against flat hands" – how succinctly this describes both things: taming, through writing, the prison that is lodged so tortuously in his mind, and being threatened by the police state with landing in prison again for writing about his time in prison.

Liao Yiwu's book, published by S.Fischer Verlag

The circumstances surrounding the publication of "Testimonials" bring to mind the publication of "Doctor Zhivago" fifty or so years ago. Pasternak was insistent that his novel be published in Italy with Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Things unfurled like a detective story: Feltrinelli introduced the method that the only messenger who could be trusted was one who could show Pasternak one half of a note of money whose other half was in Feltrinelli's possession. And Pasternak sent a message on cigarette paper that only letters written by him in French were to be trusted. The reason for all this was that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party was doing everything in its power to prevent the book from being published. Soviet delegations forced the Italian Communist Party to help stonewall the book. Pasternak himself was forced to sign letters barring rights for publication. And the chairman of the Soviet writers association, Alexei Surkov, made a personal visit to Feltrinelli in Milan and tried to thwart publication by producing falsified statements from Pasternak. Feltrinelli described him as a "syrup-coated hyena". Pasternak stuck to his guns. He wanted the publication, whatever the cost.

The Chinese Communist Party also did everything in its power to try to prevent the publication of Liao Yiwu's book. The pressure on the author was enormous. He had to promise the Chinese authorities that he no longer wanted the book published in Germany. But S. Fischer Verlag knew that nothing was dearer to his heart. But they had to delay publication – against the author's wishes – to protect him from imprisonment. Even when Liao said that he was insistent on publication, and would go to jail for it if necessary. Fortunately it didn't come to this.

In Liao Yiwu's case, China's intervention was a fiasco. But it has been successful elsewhere. In one German-Chinese group exhibition, for example, where a series of twelve photos by a famous German photographer were due to be shown. After the intervention of the Chinese censors only two photos remained. And the curators and the German artist accepted this.

In Pasternak's day intrigues, secret police plans and delegations were required to prohibit something. Today this is all taken care of by former executives of big German corporations. They boo at exhibition openings when someone mentions that Tilman Spengler was refused a visa. They are blinded by balance sheets. But Chinese flattery blinds authors too. Juli Zeh explained on a visit to China that she fully understood that to prevent civil war in China it is necessary to tighten thumb screws, persecute and lock up potential agitators, censor the press and restrict internet communication. And, she asked, who would dare to stand up and demand "Introduce democracy, right now".

Like Pasternak, Liao Yiwu had to go through an awful lot before his book was published: house searches and repeated confiscations of his manuscript, stubborn new beginnings under perpetual surveillance. And it is thanks to Liao Yiwu's integrity and moral responsibility that he did not give up until he had finished writing it.

But not only in terms of this same odyssey of becoming but also content does Pasternak come to mind. "Testimonials" opens our eyes. As in his earlier book, "The Corpse Walker", we see beneath the shiny surface of the newly wealthy, power-hungry empire. A state which runs its prisons and camps according to the Gulag model is not a modern state but a Maoist relic in the camouflage of an economic miracle. And the price people pay for this is disenfranchisement and repression. This fact is one part of it. The other is the book's enormous literary power. The power of its language makes it hard-nosed-cold and skin-warm, wrathful and charismatic. In the cell, life is measured in seconds. Sadism and pity are unpredictably interchangeable. One and the same thing can be a monster and a pitiful heap by turns. Every behaviour is crazily normal, just like prison itself. "People being killed in custody was as much a part of everyday life as eating rice," writes Liao.

He does not make light of the brutality of thieves and murderers, but dedemonises it through precise description. Under such circumstances brutality becomes inescapably legitimate. Because, says Liao, the reason for the dehumanisation of the prisoners is the Chinese state itself, its "ancient tradition of ruling crimes with crimes". In Liao Yiwu's literary art, the sarcasm of his sentences proves to be the flip side of anguish. The documentary passages in the book are interlaced with poetry. This mixtures bores not only into the mind but also presses on the stomach. Liao Yiwu's language is physical because it has been physically suffered. It has, like its author, swallowed disenfranchisement and torture; it clatters and whispers about, and frees itself at last.

The fellow inmates who have been condemned to death are already referred to in the cell as "dead Chen" or "little dead one". The latter is only nineteen. His mother had sexual relations with him and then betrayed him with others. He slashed her to pieces with a knife. Condemned to death in the cell he also says: "A rat feels something when it closes its nest, let alone human beings." Another condemned man says: "The only thing I can squander is myself." Because executions do take place. And Liao writes the plea for clemency for many of his fellow prisoners, and before their death, the final letter to the next of kin, or the will. And when someone is fetched out of the cell for execution it says in the book: "He has gone on his way." So benignly phrased that it is chilling. But then you read that in the night before the execution the condemned man has his blood drained by a prison doctor in an extra cell. The state takes that as well.

In the cell paper and pencil were available for just two hours a month, and in this time Liao had to complete up to ten letters. This meant he was unable to note down a single conversation. So the dialogues are fictional, reconstructed from memory. In the process the verbal duels gain heat, persevere through all emotional registers, rage, sadism, concern, depression, desolation and loneliness. And the images of the landscape are equally disturbing: "The sickle moon had become redder still, I laid myself in this wound, the stars as green-headed mosquitoes devoured the endless nightly gloaming." Or: "The streets cast a sparse light, it was like being on the moon: the high-rises dissolved one after the other into the firmament, the little alleyways were unfathomably deep, vicious thoughts appeared at the end of them, as if projected by dream lamps." And Liao writes about himself: "I heard my soul run away from them,” or: "My heart was like dead ashes."

The "Massacre" poem (more here) that Liao wrote four hours prior to the June 4 massacre sealed his fate. This death lament, this torrent of images: "Mothers devour their dead children! / Children inveigle their parents! / Women betray their men! / Citizens burn their city!” And the soldiers: "They clean their boots with the skirt of a dead girl." And repeated like a chorus: "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Feed your addiction! Shoot to the head!" This death poem is written, or rather screamed, in a panicked imperative, in the commanding tone of powerlessness. This inverse imperative has a vehemence, it wants to stop the army from killing. And after the bloodbath, Liao writes in resignation: "The massacre takes places in three worlds. In the wings of the birds, in the scales of the fish, in the finest dust."

In this book the endless gruesome deeds are described in a glistening vortex of words. And nothing evades this author. The book is also a feat of memory. A phenomenal memory in the aftermath can only materialise through observations made at the time of the experience. From Oskar Pastior's reports (more here) from the labour camp, I know how this registering of things "at the zero point of existence" is unconscious but all the more precise for being so. It must certainly have been the same for Liao – perception works incessantly, sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously. At the "zero point of existence" the mind clicks and saves the seconds. A snapshot instinct which functions independently of and against the self. The broken nerves create a compulsion to observe. The abominable closeness into which people are packed in camps and prisons becomes more tortuous the more obsessively you fixate upon it. Compulsive observation wrests every detail into the realm of the personal, wolfs the last scrap of strength that you need to survive.

And yet this compulsive observation is a blessing, because it preserves humanity by sparing us on the sly – it probably even saves us. Because those who observe are half outside, even if they are completely inside. And there, where neglect and vegetation are the order of the day, observation becomes the only possible mental occupation. Perception is a torment and the torment of perception is a blessing. Torment and blessing go hand in hand throughout this book, they understand one another. Because both are driven by self-observation. Liao's prison book plays out inside the mind, as a soliloquy recalling everything that has happened in the memory. This recalling is always a falling back; the experiences expand because afterwards they exist in abstract form – but inside the mind they are phantom pain and smouldering fear. Liao calls these fear fantasies: "the next-worldly tendernesses". They are with us for the rest of our lives, whether at home or abroad. They never go away, but they do return.

"Old bald friend" is Nobel prize laureate Liu Xiaobo's name for Liao Yiwu. The two of them belong together. Each in their own way has opened our eyes to China today. But Xiaobo is sitting in prison for his brilliant Charta 08, an ingenious catalogue of suggestions for reform for a democratic China. This is his "crime". The eternal party's vanity and fear of losing power is so boundless that Liu Xiaobo's hope for change has earned him 11 years in prison. And it seems not to bother the iron comrades that the regime's mania for self-preservation is not only a total loss of face but also an implicit declaration of bankruptcy. Blind and obstinate they guard their autocracy. The zig-zag course of brutality through which they are now pursuing Ai Weiwei can only be explained in these terms. They are falsifying things where they can to invent the necessary "crimes". But it's pure craziness – the accusations are contradictory – despotism stacked high. Just in the way Liu Xiaobo's sentence is not even legitimised by Chinese law. This, too, is despotism.

I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu has managed to come to us, over here in this foreign land, instead of landing in prison. It is a bitter fortune for him, much greater than we can imagine. Such bitter fortune is, in and of itself, worth much more that pure good fortune – it has always cost too much, but saved even more. You cannot be carried by bitter fortune, you have to drag it along. It rules over you, with all its "next-worldly tendernesses". Home, that is the place where you are born and live. Or where you are born, live a long time and then leave and keep returning to and leaving again. For the persecuted who have been saved, home is the place you are born, lived a long time, fled from and can never return to.

You say to yourself: to hell with it. But that doesn't work. This home will always be the most intimate enemy you have. You have left behind everyone you love. And they continue to be just as vulnerable as you once were. If they are not in prison already, they must "be on guard against flat hands". Liao Yiwu will not be able to return home for the time being. But bitter fortune is clever – it mixes together homesickness with homesicklessness. And it is an absolute master of the conjunctive. It tells you plain and simple that you would never have wanted to be what it was you were expected to become, had you been allowed to stay at home. This conjunctive is no longer optative but conclusive. It banishes all melancholy, knowing that it will return without leaving. But even the master conjunctive returns. We are talking about home – I believe that bitter fortune is the home of the conjunctive. In exile, you feel this every day, with this-worldly anger and "next-worldly tendernesses".

Dear Yiwu, rest assured that your bitter fortune will be joined by plain good fortune. Actually, it is already there today.


Many thanks to Herta Müller for so kindly allowing us to translate her speech.

Herta Müller was born in Nitzkydorf in Romania in 1953. Following the uncensored publication of her first novel in Germany in 1984, and her refusal to work for the Romanian secret service, she was subsequently banned from publication in her homeland and subjected to continuing persecution in both her professional and private life. She emigrated to Germany in 1987 and now lives in Berlin. In 2009 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her latest novel "Atemschaukel" (everything I own I carry with me) was published by Hanser Verlag in 2009 (read excerpt)

Translation: lp

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