cover image F: Hu Feng's Prison Years

F: Hu Feng's Prison Years

Mei Zhi, trans. from the Chinese and edited by Gregor Benton. Verso (Norton, dist.), $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-84467-967-6

A Chinese dissident couple endure a Kafkaesque ordeal in this bleak memoir. Hu Feng (aka Zhang Guangren) a prominent Communist literary critic, spent 25 years in the Chinese penal system on vague charges of "idealism"; Mei Zhi, who spent seven years in prison for being his wife (and died in 2004), focuses her reminiscences on their years under nerve-racking house arrest during the Cultural Revolution. The struggle between the prickly, perversely courageous Hu and Chinese bureaucrats, who clothed harsh coercion in chummy paternalism, makes for a striking study of Maoism's spiritual contortions. As part of his "thought reform," Hu is ordered to pen self-criticisms of his (and his friends') unspecified "guilt"; he responds with a defiant passive aggressiveness, avowing his faith in the Party and its right to punish him%E2%80%94even as he declares his innocence. (The decadeslong inquisition climaxes when Hu, emerging from a particularly brutal prison stint, lapses into a paranoid graphomania in which he admits to imaginary offenses.) In Benton's limpid translation, Mei's own quest for normalcy%E2%80%94a decent meal, a garden, a rare evening of companionship and relaxation%E2%80%94amid the poverty and crazed fanaticism of Mao's China comes through with vivid immediacy. The result is a quietly harrowing account of the intimate horrors of totalitarianism. (Feb.)