4 Stars - Strongly Recommended
Every once in a great while, I read a book that speaks to me in ways I never quite expected it to. In Xiaoda Xiao's non-fiction book, he chronicles his five year prison sentence in China during the reign of Chairman Mao. And I sat in awe as he showed me just how wonderful it is to be a citizen of the United States, how lucky we are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and how fortunate we are to have the ability to hire a lawyer and sit before a judge and jury.
At the age of 20, Xiaoda drunkenly tears a poster of Mao from a wall and confesses the accident the next morning. Without a trial, he was sentenced to five years in a labor reform prison as a "counter-revolutionary" who "viciously attacked the Great Leaders Brilliant Image".
Working every day in the stone quarry, attending the humiliating and degrading thought reform courses at night, Xiaoda suffered at the hands of his group leaders, prison chiefs, and even his own cellmates. Nightly confessions and denouncements were a mandatory ordeal, and a necessary step in the reformation of the "counter revolutionary" soul. Acknowledging ones dirty, abnormal, twisted thoughts (or sometimes acknowledging the ones that the group leaders thought you held) was the only way to guarantee peace at night, and a potential transfer to easier labor positions.
Imagine living in a world where a jealous neighbor or suspicious wife could write a letter accusing you of false acts that would get you thrown into jail without a moments hesitation. Imagine receiving smacks on the head, and kicks in the shins, and being verbally humiliated (by the very same prisoners who you work side by side with during the day) for those false accusations until you confessed to them. Because standing up for yourself and proclaiming your innocence would only land you in solitary confinement, or cause your arms to be handcuffed behind your back overnight, or cause your daily ration of food to be withheld.
As Xiaoda so craftily puts it "To survive the labor reform camp, one had to learn to become a faithful dog..or an idiot.."
Prisoners were always under suspicion, constantly under surveillance - a cellmate could, at any time, report back to a group leader or Chief your thoughts and feelings on certain topics - and sometimes even the recipients of the "Ultimate Revolutionary Humanity", which in prisoner terms stood for the Death Penalty. Heck, even shouting out the word "Amnesty" while dreaming could spawn an investigation that would end with you standing in front of the firing squad as your fellow prisoners stood by and watched.
Xiaoda's memoir, told in connecting short stories, gave me a greater appreciation for the country I live in. After what he had been put through, it amazes me that anyone in China would intentionally break a law, knowing the horrible fate they were committing themselves to. Rape, adultery, and negative acts towards the Great Leader were all sure fire ways to land you in a labor prison. Why in the world would anyone do anything that would cause them to suffer the things that our author was put through? And worse so for him - since he what he did was an unintentional, drunken mistake with no true malice behind it.
A truly thought provoking, heartbreaking tale of a man wrongly convicted, beaten and broken for something he willingly confessed as an accident... A story that details the pain of being forced to surrender your pride in the fight for your sanity. The Visiting Suit teaches us how to stand up for what's right by backing down and doing what others want you to do in order to survive.
Another superb release from Two Dollar Radio! Many thanks to them for making this book available for review. For more information on Xiaoda Xiao and to read an excerpt of The Visiting Suit, please visit their site by clicking here.