The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis and The Cowshed by Ji Xianlin, two memoirs reviewed by Beth Johnston
THE CRETAN RUNNER: HIS STORY OF THE GERMAN OCCUPATION
by George Psychoundakis
translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor
THE COWSHED: MEMORIES OF THE CHINESE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
by Ji Xianlin
translated by Chenxin Jiang
New York Review of Books
reviewed by Beth Johnston
Over the years, I’ve consumed dozens of memoirs of hardship. I’ve accumulated shelves full of first-person accounts of war, revolution, genocide, and slavery, and developed a sideline collection of journeys that end in failure or death. These accounts of people swept up in forces far larger than they are comfort me because their problems dwarf everyday concerns like workday traffic or messy kitchen sinks. Their perspective reminds me that much of human history has been dark and difficult, and that in the face of those difficulties, our only choice is whether to act bravely or poorly. These stories also do what good fiction—and good history—do: they let us glimpse the lives of those whose experiences we cannot imagine.
So I was excited to learn that New York Review Books had just published two more of this kind of memoir, one by a Greek resistance fighter during World War II and one by a scholar caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution. George Psychoundakis’s The Cretan Runner and Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed offer readers different rewards, but both have a great deal to tell us about how we both endure and explain social upheaval. Psychoundaki’s memoir recounts how thousands of people worked together to save Crete, while Ji’s paints a portrait of isolation and fear in a society that expects people to spy on their colleagues and friends.
Of the two memoirs, Psychoundakis’s is the far more approachable. Just 21 when the Germans invaded Crete, Psychoundakis worked with British officers for much of the war, literally running all over the island to deliver messages, gather intelligence, coordinate British air drops, help British and Greek soldiers escape the island by submarine to Egypt, and otherwise sabotage the Nazi occupation of Greece.
Psychoundakis himself is an appealing narrator. Before the war came, he was a shepherd with just a few years of formal education, born into a family whose only wealth consisted of a few goats and sheep. (The goats and sheep were stolen during the war.) After the war, he sat down with a pile of notebooks to chronicle the German occupation. The result is surprisingly fluent, full of anecdotes that must have been honed orally, around a fire.
In fact, much of the book reads like boys’ adventures rather than pitched battle, with story after story of the Germans chasing Psychoundakis and his fellow runners across mountains and through villages. The difference between children’s games and this account, of course, is that some of these adventures end in tragedy. Early in the war, for instance, when three boys decide to burn a German plane, a Greek informer identifies them to the Nazis. The Germans round up the boys’ families, threatening to execute them. Eventually, two of the boys surrender, but at their execution, one distracts the Nazis by making a last request of a glass of wine. While they get it, the boy runs off into the woods, permanently eluding his pursuers. The other young man, fearful his family will face reprisals, calmly waits for the Germans to return and carry out the sentence, despite the crowd’s pleas for him to escape.
Although The Cretan Runner can be difficult to follow at times, with a profusion of place names and people, as a whole it benefits from Psychoundakis’s large cast of characters, each penciled in with just a few telling strokes. There are Greek partisans who steal the soles of shoes that the British send to resupply their own troops. There are old women and young girls who warn the partisans of approaching Nazis with coded shouts, such as, “The black cattle are among the vine shoots!” There are shepherds who offer to share their Greek yogurt with the British, and a Greek cook who forbids Psychoundakis from using sugar in his tea for fear the cook will run out. And most often played for laughs, there are the British officers, clever and resourceful but often confused about rural Greek life. (One is shocked to find that pigs have eaten his diary; another is astonished to realize that Cretan custom dictates who says hello first when passing on a trail.)
In addition to these portraits of his partners in the resistance, the book conveys George’s character in his reactions to the world around him. He is unfazed by challenges that might be the centerpieces of others’ wartime memoirs—he doesn’t blink over meals made up of boiled herbs or grass cooked with snails. He’s hardworking, spending days shuttling from town to town or hauling wireless sets from hideout to hideout. And he’s both curious and deeply sincere, detailing a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land with the wonder of someone encountering new cultures for the first time. Here is his description of the Great Pyramid of Cheops: “We reached the pyramid—an entire mountain! . . . People were going up and down the east side of it. I wanted to go up too, so started the climb in great delight. A Greek soldier on the way down advised me not to go up as it was very tiring and tricky. I didn’t listen to him.” (The next day, Psychoundakis pays for his enthusiasm: he can’t walk because of leg cramps.)
This is the charm of The Cretan Runner—a narrator with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm for his homeland, its people, and the outsiders struggling to save it. Psychoundakis’s zeal is apparent in each concrete detail of his story: the exact number of Germans chasing him, the attributes of the landscape over which he runs, the precise way in which the pack mule he is leading rebels.
Given the evocativeness of The Cretan Runner, I was expecting an even more carefully observed story from The Cowshed. After all, its author was not a naïve Greek shepherd but a prolific professor of Sanskrit, as well as (in later life) a public intellectual and university administrator. But The Cowshed has a hazy, hermetic feel to it that at first I couldn’t understand. The introduction by New Yorker writer Zha Jianying explains in part why the memoir is so opaque. As she points out, China remains deeply ashamed of the Cultural Revolution, in which the nation’s young people viciously attacked its intellectuals as counterrevolutionaries. Zha helps contextualize the book, noting that “Coming out in 1998 during a politically relaxed moment, [The Cowshed] probably benefitted from the author’s eminent status in China . . . . But authorities also took steps quietly to restrict public discussion of the memoir, as its subject continues to be treated as sensitive.” In such a climate, Ji had to edit himself; in fact, he acknowledges in a preface that his first draft of the book, written in 1992, was too hostile and vengeful to publish.
Ji has reason for such hostility. The core of the book describes the period from late 1967 through early 1970 when he is imprisoned in the titular cowshed—slang for hastily constructed prisons on university campuses built to hold the intellectuals (or “cow devils”) that students believed represented dangerous bourgeois elements in society. After opposing the leader of a powerful student faction at Peking University, where he teaches, Ji is denounced as a counterrevolutionary based on the flimsiest of evidence, including the fact that Ji owned a decades-old picture of Chiang Kai-Shek.
Ji is so despondent after his arrest and interrogation that he arranges to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills—considered a “capitalist” method of killing oneself because the most effective pills are manufactured in the West. As fate has it, just as he’s about act, Red Guards drag him off to his first “struggle session”—a public opportunity for others to not only discuss his alleged transgressions, but to beat and torture him. At such sessions, Ji is critized, paraded, pelted with stones, “kicked, punched, spat on, and yet unable to fight back.” He’s also required to hold the notorious “airplane position,” bent over with body at right angles to the ground and arms spread out behind like airplane wings. Later, Ji attends struggle sessions so frequently that he takes to practicing the airplane position at home so he can hold it without difficulty when required. But this first struggle session, for all its novelty, saves his life: “If I could survive even this, I decided, I had nothing more to fear.”
The subsequent years of imprisonment test this resolve: Ji experiences the pettiest and most bizarre forms of harassment (he’s required to memorize a daily passage from Mao and recite it on command) as well as profound physical pain (at one point, his testicles become so swollen that he can only crawl the several miles to a doctor). In many ways, it’s the psychological burdens that seem the heaviest; many of Ji’s tormentors are former students, while elderly colleagues he respects are also imprisoned and routinely abused.
Then, too, the memoir itself makes clear that the camaraderie and shared hardship that Psychoundakis experienced was unavailable to Ji. Those who persecuted Ji were always on alert for more evidence that he was “a capitalist roader;” he had to police his behavior even when imprisoned, or else he would risk blows or worse. As a result, Ji’s experience of the Cultural Revolution was a lonely one. Ji cannot share fears or emotions with others; the only time he records speaking with a fellow prisoner comes in an unsupervised moment, when a colleague whispers to him: “Our fates have been sealed. We’ll live out our lives in labor camps in some remote province.” All Ji’s descriptions of other prisoners in the cowshed are similarly one-way, with Ji as an observer of life rather than a participant in it.
The best way to read The Cowshed, then, may be less as a fully realized memoir than as a sustained argument for others to write their own recollections of the Cultural Revolution. As Ji explains in the introduction, he wrote his account in large part because he realized that no one else was doing so: “Gifted writers among the survivors of the cowshed must number in the thousands. Why this silence? There is no time to lose: as each generation of survivors ages, these fleeting memories will be lost for good. That would be an immeasurable loss.”
There is another reason for silence, one Ji touches on faintly at times. Part of his story is his inability to tell it, something Holocaust memoirs also struggle with. As Ji says at one point: “I have many other memories, but I cannot bear to go on.” At another: “There are many other things that can be said about life in the cowshed, but I will stop here.” Ji paints himself as broken, a man who even during the Cultural Revolution is already elderly, betrayed by his students, befuddled by ideology, unable to articulate what he has seen. Psychoundakis, by contrast, is young, brave, strong, agile, and victorious. The two could not have written the same memoir, but the records they leave us bear the imprint of author, time, and circumstance. This gift, of letting us see in every aspect what we cannot ourselves envision, never fails to move me.
Beth Johnston trained as a lawyer before earning an MFA from Bennington College. She has written about books and law for The New Republic, Legal Times, and other publications. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches writing at George Washington University.