Xiaoda Xiao’s debut novel immediately drops us into a solitary confinement cell built into the natural concave of a hillside. The decade is the 1970s and the place Chairman Mao’s communist China. Prisoner Ja Feng, wrongfully accused of a counterrevolutionary crime, crouches in the dark, concrete space too small to stand up in. He survives the nine-month confinement by focusing on his dreams and the past and by trading notes through a food hole in the iron door with his neighboring cell mates.
The Cave Man is a small book of large meaning written in articulate, unadorned prose. The simplicity of the words lure us into the unfolding of Ja Feng’s inhuman circumstances that are depicted in vivid scenes and a calm, emotionally distant tone. Such contrasts of simple versus inhuman and vivid versus calm create the tragic tension in this powerful book, bringing to the forefront the awful grace of man’s will to survive, no matter what.
Ja Feng is pardoned from his crime after Mao’s death and a change in government leadership. With his freedom comes a new prison of psychological suffering. He screams in his sleep and follows people in the street, wondering what it’s like to be normal. Eventually, Ja Feng finds employment as a plumber and then a salesman, building designer, restaurant owner and artist. He fails at or gets fired from each endeavor, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes because he’s perceived as mentally ill, but mostly because he’s feared and misunderstood. Even though he finds his way to the United States for graduate school, in the end, Ja Feng cannot overcome the brutality of his past confinement.
Xiaoda Xiao, like his protagonist, spent seven years in a Chinese forced labor camp in the 1970s. This talented author accidently ripped a poster of Chairman Mao and was accused of committing a counterrevolutionary crime. It’s not surprising, then, that The Cave Man convincingly unsettles us, especially with the knowledge that Ja Feng, as a fictional representation of many real-life Chinese prisoners, although freed from his solitary cell, could never live freely again.
This is a moving story and an important book that sheds light not only on historical events but present ones. Consider two recent news reports, one from The Associated Press, one from The New York Times. Their titles speak the relevance: