“To me, Kafka is the most alive of dead writers, no doubt because of his acute understanding of the modern condition,” Mr. Ma says of the early 20th century Czech surrealist. “In China, I feel his presence everywhere. I often reread ‘The Castle’ and am moved by the protagonist’s relentless but futile struggles with the all-powerful and unknowable authorities.”
Wu Cheng’en’s stories from the 16th century captivated the young Mr. Ma. “As a child, the monsters, immortals and bodhisattvas from ‘Journey to the West’ populated my dreams,” says Mr. Ma. The Ming Dynasty chronicler of the Monkey King legend also pioneered writing in vernacular rather than classical Chinese. “To this day, I’m still enchanted by Monkey’s adventures along the Silk Road. How dull the world would be without such ludicrous, miraculous stories.”
I ask what influences shaped her husband and she says their youth was a “desert” – both are of the generation that grew up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Later, when Liu Xiaobo went to university, he began to devour western philosophy. “We also like Kafka and Dostoevsky,” Liu Xia adds.
She is allowed to send books and money to her husband, but he has received only about 10 of more than 100 titles she has chosen. They include four by Kafka. Did she see parallels between the Czech writer’s work and their lives?
“Sometimes we feel that he is exactly writing about us,” she says drily.