Bitter fortune: Herta Müller connects the dissidence of Liao Yiwu & Boris Pasternak

By Harriet Staff


Nobel winner Herta Müller spoke about Chinese dissident author Liao Yiwu's new book Testimonials at the book release in Berlin in August (Yiwu "was ecstatic," wrote The New York Times, when he made it to Germany in July after "being denied an exit visa 17 times, yanked off planes and trains by the police and threatened with yet more prison time.") In the speech, printed up for Sign and Sight, Müller compares Yiwu to poet Boris Pasternak, who was famously forced by the Soviet Union to decline the Nobel Prize after his banned Doctor Zhivago was smuggled to Milan and published in 1957. More detail on that:

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.

Müller writes: "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." Furthermore:

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 [Yiwu's German publisher] 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.

But Yiwu did spend years in prison. It was a poem written four hours after the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre "that sealed his fate," writes Müller. We mentioned this in May. Müller describes Yiwu's time in prison in detail: "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."

Müller also looks at their content in common, and considers Yiwu's style: "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."

She also makes connections to other writers and artists resisting China state oppression:

"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....

Read it all here.

Originally Published: October 14th, 2011