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Trapped in an invisible kingdom

Liao Yiwu was brutally imprisoned for his poem about Tiananmen Square. Simon Willis reads his memoir

Simon Willis | September/October 2013

ENGLISH TITLE For a Song and a Hundred Songs
AUTHOR Liao Yiwu
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE Chinese
TRANSLATOR Wen Huang

"As the country was whipped into a frenzy," writes the Chinese poet Liao Yiwu near the beginning of this memoir, "I took pride in my coolheadedness." It was 1989. Students were protesting across China, but Liao remained indifferent. Then in early June the army opened fire in Tiananmen Square. Something in him changed, and he wrote a protest poem called "Massacre".

He was locked up in Chongqing, and this book—written three times because the authorities kept stealing his manuscripts—is a shocking document of the daily horrors of life in a Chinese prison, subject to guards who were often sadistic. In the most grotesque moment—and there are hundreds—he is sodomised with an electric baton. The sadism even spreads to the prisoners. Liao lists a "menu" of tortures dished up in the cells. "Noodles in a Clear Broth" involves eating toilet paper soaked in urine. "Sichuan-Style Smoked Duck" ends with the victim’s penis being burnt. Like several inmates, Liao tries to commit suicide by smashing his head against the wall. 

"I found myself trapped", he says, "in an invisible kingdom ruled by blood and iron." It’s the best sentence in the book, showing Liao’s gift for a lyrical line, which is sometimes marred by lumps in the translation. "Stinky scumbags", for one, doesn’t ring entirely true as a cell-block insult. But what stands out is Liao’s calm reporting, mirroring his trauma’s terrifying regularity. The darkness is so deep that redemptive sparks blaze like magnesium. One night he sees a young death-row inmate called Little surrounded by his friends, "cuddling him like loving fathers".

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