SWhen The Economist marked the opening of the Beijing Olympics by putting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the cover, we took it as a big hint to waste no time naming the Solzhenitsyn of China already. Of course, it was not a hint directed at us, but at Slate, which usually scoops everyone on the whole "pithy takes on weighty geopolitical topics" angle. The thing is, no one has found one yet! Perhaps because the Chinese are a godless people and therefore less likely to accord epic religious and literary symbolism to perpendicular lines drawn in their dirt? Because it's not for total for lack of trying. The New Republic blog has been featuring a Chinese "Dissident of the Day" during most days of the games, but they all seem to have been imprisoned — thanks, Yahoo! — before their publishing careers could really take off. Slate, for its part, had Anne Applebaum write a piece on a non-incarcerated candidate for the title, a Communist Party official named Yang Jisheng who wrote a book called Tombstone about the 36 million Chinese who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. But Tombstone, like pretty much any account of post-1949 Chinese history that is in any way true, is banned in China.No one has bothered translating it into English. And even if it could get published both places, it would probably seem a little dated. (One of the reasons Solzhenityn's seminal One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich became such a hit in the U.S. is that it was published in Russia first, back in 1962, back when people were still starving to death from the Great Leap Forward.) Of course, it would be nice to think that Solzhenitsyn was so influential, and his depictions of the dehumanization of Soviet labor camps so universally applicable, that Solzhenitsyn himself would be the "Solzhenitsyn of China." But when he died it turned out the official state-controlled Chinese literary association had no comment, explaining that they didn't have any Russian literary experts on hand. Then someone unearthed a Chinese Russian literature expert named Liu Wenfei who has basically never spoken to the Western press. "For Chinese intellectuals," he said, Solzhenitsyn was "a master of literature." And "for others who suffered in the 1960s and 1970s, he was a thinker with a deep sense of justice and morality who pitilessly attacked the crimes of the Soviet dictatorship." Which is a pretty clever way of admitting that pretty much all Chinese intellectuals "suffered in the 1960s and 1970s" without having to point out that so many continue to suffer. Ma Jian, whose novelized account of the pro-democracy movement that ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre came out this year, is also, needless to say, banned. (Most Chinese still don't know about the massacre itself.) Same goes, of course, for the Chinese guy to possess both the distinctions of "years in labor camps" and "Nobel Prize in Literature," Gao Xingjian. Even if it weren't, Gao is probably too highbrow to achieve the influence and audience of a Solzhenitsyn. Or maybe it is not a question of "brow," but a question of "literature" entirely once any society has reached a level of technological advancement beyond that of Pyongyang — which is to say: Not that Solzhenitsyn really thought of himself as all that influential in the end. Obit: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [Economist]
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