Liao Yiwu was a reluctant dissident.
A Chinese poet and storyteller nourished on Beat generation literature, he picked fights, drank to excess and despised politics.
“I have never taken an interest in mass movements or foreign imports such as democracy, freedom, human rights and love,” he declared as the student pro-democracy movement unfolded in Beijing in 1989. “If destruction is inevitable, let it be.”
Then came the Tiananmen crackdown. Mr. Liao was transformed. He composed and recorded a poem of fury and frustration called “Massacre.” He joined with friends to make a film called “Requiem” — to appease the souls of the dead.
He was arrested in 1990 as a counterrevolutionary and endured four years of beatings, torture, hunger and humiliations in a series of prisons. After being denied an exit permit 16 times and facing new threats of imprisonment for his writing, he slipped across the border into Vietnam in 2011 and made his way to Berlin, where he still lives.
Now Mr. Liao’s prison memoir, “For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison,” has appeared in the West. Banned in China, it has been a best seller and prizewinner in Germany; has won critical acclaim in a French-language edition; and is being translated into Czech, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. An English-language version will be published by New Harvest in June.
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