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For a Song and a Hundred Songs

Poet Liao Yiwu's account of four years spent in a Chinese prison is raw and disturbing yet also a deeply human and essential read.

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From the first time he’s tortured in the detention center (which he compares with the way a woman forced into prostitution might feel on her first night on the job), to the end of his time in prison when he takes flute lessons from the prison’s oldest inmate (“Sima,” a former Buddhist monk who may have been a member of a religious cult), Liao’s strength is in his observation and curiosity about what’s going on around him. And despite his own suffering, he can’t help but keep his eyes open.

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Through those eyes we meet Dead Chang, a prisoner on death row for smuggling heroin. He wants to borrow Liao’s atlas so that he can memorize routes across China to haunt after he dies.  We also meet “Little,” a 19-year-old on death row for robbing and kidnapping, whom the other inmates treat with tender solicitude after he wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and in tears, ready to commit suicide.  “Scholar Yang clutched Little to his bosom, wiping the blood off his forehead. Dark Skin also dragged his shackled feet over to console his friend. ‘My good brother, take it easy,’ said Dark Skin. ‘Our fate is predetermined and you were not meant to live long in this world. Once the gunshot is fired, you won’t feel or know a thing.’ ”

Later, Little opines: “ ‘It’s funny that I didn’t have a good life until now,’ he sighed. ‘Now that I’m going to die, so many people take care of me. I don’t have to worry about food and clothes. When I was outside, I begged on the street and robbed people because nobody would offer me a job.’ "

Although there are some seriously disturbing scenes in this book (words like "brutal" or “torture” or “bleak” are hardly adequate) it comes across as honest, detailed and real, rather than gratuitous. And speaking of details: Liao’s love for language and imagery are tangible throughout the book. Take, for example, this winter work scene:

“A few squares of sunlight filtered through the tiny window into the cell. Inmates dropped their packets and thrust themselves into the sunlit areas, their pale shaved heads glittering. Since there was not enough sunlight for everyone, fistfights broke out. The chief towered over all of us. He stood on tiptoe and stretched his neck, putting his head right inside two precious squares of sunlight. Meanwhile, he balled up his fists and was ready to punch anyone who dared to challenge him.”

Unfortunately, the author is light on analysis.  What are we, the reader, to do with this new view? Still, even without his insight spelled out, we are left with a stirring memoir that highlights the lives of those from the bottom rungs of society. That alone is powerfully thought-provoking, particularly given the increasingly important role that China plays in today's world.

Jenna Fisher is the Monitor's Asia editor.

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