Ma Bo'Le's Second Life

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Ma Bo’le is the sad-sack anti-hero of Xiao Hong’s 1941 novel, MA BO’LE’S SECOND LIFE, which has just been published by Open Letter in a deft English translation by Howard Goldblatt. The latter is not only responsible for introducing other works by Hong to Western audiences but investing twenty years of his life in the translating and editing of SECOND LIFE, a book that was first written in two parts and published as a newspaper serial.

Hong, who died at 31 in Hong Kong shortly after the Japanese invasion of that city, was a forgotten author for some forty years; now she is celebrated as one of China’s best writers of the Republican era, with a museum devoted to her work.

Ma Bole’s picaresque adventures take place against the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese war, with the protagonist desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy’s invading army. The spoiled, indolent son of a mandarin father who converted to Christianity, Ma flees northeastern China (Manchuria) for Shanghai, convinced he’d be safe there. He lives alone in a cheap, dark room, quits washing himself and trimming his hair. He spends most of his time denouncing his own people (“bloody Chinese”) and lying in bed.

It’s not until his wealthy wife and three “greedy-gut,” obnoxious children show up that Ma finally takes action. Along with thousands of other unwashed, poverty-stricken refugees, he and his bickering brood traipse from one hellish provincial town to nother–-Hangzhou, Hankou, Sichuan–-in hopes of escaping the war. But as soon as they put roots down, they hear the drone of Japanese bombers, the thunder of Japanese artillery, and must start packing their bags again.

At each of their stops in a chaotic, disintegrating China, the Candide-like Ma clings to his optimistic belief that life will get better. He also falls for one get-rich-quick-scheme after another, opening a publishing house, then a bakery and a tailor shop. All of these endeavors fail miserably, but ever the snob, Ma never blames himself for these mistakes, only the “bloody Chinese” or the “Bloody Japanese.” His sole achievement is learning a few words of Esperanto from an anti-war Japanese couple living in China.

When the book ends, we find Ma working as a janitor at the YMCA in Hong Kong, a city he’s convinced will be spared by the Japanese war machine–-until the ground troops of “General Sakai’s 23rd Army advanced on Kowloon a week later, and the battle was over almost as soon as it began.” Ma then sends his family to what he believes is a protected sanctuary, a Buddhist monastery, but he himself stays at the YMCA, on the chance that his luck as a survivor will hold. Instead, he is taken prisoner by a squad of Japanese marines, beaten and hogtied.

“The few remaining staff members of the YMCA stayed out of sight,” the author writes, “but watched from an upstairs window as Ma was hoisted onto the bed of a military truck, along with some other prisoners. It was the last they would see of him, and the war continued.”