RED SORGHUM

A powerful new voice on the brutal unrest of rural China in the late 20's and 30's. Mo Yan's debut novel (and first US publication) was the basis of a 1988 Oscar-nominated film. A member of the young ``root-seeking'' writers whose focus is the Chinese countryside, Mo Yan tells the story of three generations—simultaneously ``most heroic and most bastardly''- -caught up in these turbulent years. Set in a region where the sorghum is grown, the tale's as much a family history as the story of a particular time and place—a place where the red sorghum, which ``forms a glittering sea of blood and is the traditional spirit of the region,'' is also a metaphor for change and loss. The novel opens as a group of villagers led by Commander Yu, the narrator's grandfather, prepare to attack the advancing Japanese. Yu sends his 14-year-old son back home to get food for his men; but as Yu's wife returns through the sorghum fields with the food, the Japanese start firing and she's killed. Her death becomes the thread that links the past to the present as the narrator moves back and forth recording the war's progress, the fighting between rival Chinese warlords, and the history of his family. Commander Yu, a former bandit, had fallen in love with his wife when she was the young bride of the rich son of a distillery owner. Yu had murdered the husband, and this murder is one of many in a cycle in which brutality and betrayal alternate with love and sacrifice. In the 1970's, the narrator returns to pay his respects to the family graves—only to find that the red sorghum, ``our family's glorious talisman,'' replaced by a green hybrid, ``has been drowned in a raging flood of revolution and no longer exists.'' Graphic scenes of violence become numbingly repetitive, but Mo Yan tempers his brutal tale with a powerfully evocative lyricism. A notable new arrival.

Pub Date: April 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-670-84402-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1993

THE GARLIC BALLADS

An epic tale, banned in China, that tells of ordinary lives brutally destroyed by greed—official and familial. Setting his story in an agricultural region of China, Mo Yan (Red Sorghum, 1993) takes a seemingly unlikely subject, the 1987 glut of garlic, and transforms it into fictional gold as the personal valiantly battles the pervasive political. Though recent reforms have restored private ownership of land, at a price, the farmers of Paradise County are still subordinate to Communist officialdom, which, having jettisoned much of its ideology, now uses its power just as savagely to enrich itself. Moving back and forth in time, in prose that is often lyrical, always vivid, the story is as much about love as it is about the greed that corrupts families as well as officials. Determined to punish the farmers, who'd rioted after a lengthy and futile wait to sell their garlic to the county government, the police arrest farmer Gao Yang, as well as the Fang family matriarch, Fourth Aunt. They also briefly capture another farmer, Gao Ma. As the three try to survive either in prison or on the lam, they remember the past. Gao Yang tells of being frequently beaten and harassed during his childhood and early manhood for being born into a family of the then-reviled landowning class; Fourth Aunt recalls her greedy sons' cruelty to her only daughter, Jinju, and how her husband was callously run over by an official, who refused to pay any damages; and Gao Ma relives the terrible beatings Jinju received after she'd run away with him, because her brothers wanted her to marry a man with money. With a litany of horrors so long and so unsparing—if unsurprising—consolations are rare. An affecting vindication of the human spirit under extreme duress—from a writer of tremendous power and sympathy.

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-670-85401-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

Mo Yan has heretofore looked like China's Maxim Gorky; it now seems he may also be his country's Evelyn Waugh or Groucho...

THE REPUBLIC OF WINE

You may think you're watching Twin Peaks on Chinese television halfway through this rumbustious melodramatic satire by the internationally acclaimed author (1993’s Red Sorghum, the source of a prize-winning film; The Garlic Ballads, 1995).

The story opens in straightforward fashion, as a middle-aged government inspector, Ding Gou'er, is sent to a remote northeastern province to investigate allegations of cannibalism and other misbehavior in a booze-ridden Shangri-La known as `Liquorland.` Ding's increasingly bizarre misadventures, which involve a sybaritic mining mogul (a wonderfully drawn Falstaffian villain) nicknamed `Diamond Jin` and a ferociously amorous `lady trucker,` are wittily juxtaposed against author Mo Yan's surreal ongoing correspondence with Li Yidou (a native Liquorlander), an importunate wannabe writer who sends the baffled novelist copies of his own short stories: haywire narratives which ingenuously dramatize Li's own political opinions, sexual fantasies, and paranoid delusions. The book’s texture is further roughed up (and indeed enhanced) by deftly placed infusions of indigenous folklore, particularly supernaturalism. Mo Yan and Li Yidou actually meet in the smashing metafictional conclusion, in which the Chinese fondness for unconventional alcoholic beverages (one of Mo Yan's favorite targets) agreeably obliterates its characters' easily sidetracked searches for truth (`Damn some will say I'm obviously imitating the style of Ulysses in this section Who cares I'm drunk`). A treasure trove of polymorphous perversity and go-for-broke storytelling—and the theme of cannibalism as a metaphor for the exploitation of this vast country's helpless working poor is explored with Swiftian vigor and contempt.

Mo Yan has heretofore looked like China's Maxim Gorky; it now seems he may also be his country's Evelyn Waugh or Groucho Marx.

Pub Date: April 1, 2000

ISBN: 1-55970-531-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2000

Uneven work. But when Mo Yan’s imagination cuts loose, and the gloves come off, he can be a provocative and powerfully...

SHIFU, YOU’LL DO ANYTHING FOR A LAUGH

A mixed-bag collection of frequently abrasive, imaginative stories written in the 1980s and ’90s by the highly visible Chinese author (Red Sorghum, 1993; The Republic of Wine, 2000).

“Mo Yan” is a nom de plume that translates literally as “Don’t Speak”—a curious fact revealed in its bearer’s somewhat smug Preface (“Hunger and Loneliness: My Muses”), which summarizes the facts of his career and identifies the impulse behind his work as “a yearning for the good life by a lonely child afraid of going hungry.” Those concerns are dramatized directly in “Abandoned Child,” whose writer-narrator describes his rescue of a baby girl found in a sunflower field as an act of humanity reviled by a society that values only sons, seeing female children as no more than worthless mouths to feed. The story begins intriguingly, but lapses into excessive commentary—a mistake avoided in such stark parabolic tales as “Iron Child,” about the dietary extremities to which neglected children of exhausted railroad workers are driven; and “The Cure,” a ghastly revelation of how impoverished villagers forced to witness executions of “traitors to the Party” recycle the corpses thus provided. Mo Yan is in fact least effective when most conventional, as in tales depicting an adolescent “Love Story” occurring in a commune and an old man’s bitter memory of his failure to grasp the love offered him years earlier (“Shen Garden”). The standouts here, conversely, are a wickedly imaginative look at the horror of arranged marriage (“Soaring”); a fable of national pride and ethnic hatred embedded in the tale of a Chinese soldier’s ordeal of survival (“Man and Beast”); and the marvelous title piece, in which an elderly factory worker, laid off just prior to his retirement, achieves both prosperity and unexpected complications by converting an abandoned bus into a “love cottage” he then rents to couples seeking privacy.

Uneven work. But when Mo Yan’s imagination cuts loose, and the gloves come off, he can be a provocative and powerfully original writer.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-55970-565-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2001

Ambitious, if at times prolix.

BIG BREASTS AND WIDE HIPS

In a sprawling saga that spans a century, the noted Chinese author chronicles the lives of the Shangguan family, graphically illustrating his country’s violent past and corrupt present.

Mo Yan has previously written of peasant life in China’s rural provinces (The Republic of Wine, 2000, etc.); this time out, he goes to the distant Northeast Gaomi Township, a place of bitter winters, wide marshes, and fields of red sorghum. It is a place where animals and humans, especially women, are routinely abused, violent death is common, and life is mostly hard. For Mo Yan, what happens there is symptomatic of all the evils that have befallen China, and, though his story is never overtly polemical, it is transparently a stinging indictment. The narrator is Jintong, twin of blind Eighth Sister and the only son of Mother, Shangguan Lu, who, married to an impotent blacksmith, was impregnated by eight different men. Jintong’s father is a Swedish missionary who lives in the village until he commits suicide during WWII, after anti-Japanese forces rape Mother. The tale begins with Jintong’s birth, in 1939, followed by a brief flashback to the years following Mother’s own birth, in 1900. Jintong is born as the invading Japanese army kills numerous villagers, including Mother’s husband. But Mother is strong, like her daughters, who among themselves will marry a courageous Nationalist leader, the son-in-law Mother most respects; a communist commissar; an American bomber pilot, and a crippled mute soldier. One sister becomes a prostitute and another goes mad believing she is a bird. Jintong, who is obsessed with breasts and is nursed by Mother well into childhood, gets caught up in the Cultural Revolution and in the corruption of the new entrepreneurial China. As he struggles to survive the violent twists and turns of Chinese politics as they affect his village and his family, he becomes both the observant reporter and the witness of endemic bloodshed and cruelty.

Ambitious, if at times prolix.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-55970-672-4

Page Count: 552

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2004

The recent Nobel awarded to Gao Xingjian may have ousted Mo Yan from the top level of contenders. If so, the selection...

LIFE AND DEATH ARE WEARING ME OUT

Epic black comedy from the inventive Chinese author (Big Breasts and Wide Hips, 2004, etc.) frequently mentioned as a leading Nobel Prize contender.

This novel is every bit as rambunctious and bizarre as the summary will suggest. The story begins in Hell, whose placid sadistic calm is disturbed by the bitter complaints of Ximen Nao, a prosperous landowner arrested and executed when Chairman Mao’s policy of “land reform” required the seizure of Nao’s property. Unable to extract the stubborn Nao’s confession of wrongdoing, Lord Yama (aka Satan) agrees to “send him back” to earth. But Nao finds he isn’t himself, as he lives through successive reincarnations as a donkey, ox, pig, dog and monkey during a half-century of the Cultural Revolution, up to the beginning of the new millennium. All these Naos relive the past as well as interact with his nearest and dearest (wife, concubines, children), his former handyman Lan Lian and such disturbing avatars of Mao’s new society as militia commander and bean counter Huang Tong and Nao’s upwardly mobile, amoral son Ximen Jinlong. This long story never slackens; the author deploys parallel and recollected narratives expertly, and makes broadly comic use of himself as a meddlesome, career-oriented hack whose versions of important events are, we are assured, not to be trusted. Mo Yan is a mordant Rabelaisian satirist, and there are echoes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in this novel’s rollicking plenitude (e.g., a typical chapter title announces “Wild Geese Fall, People Die, an Ox Goes Berserk/Ravings and Wild Talk Turn into an Essay”).

The recent Nobel awarded to Gao Xingjian may have ousted Mo Yan from the top level of contenders. If so, the selection committee may have to be “re-educated.” He’s one hell of a writer.

Pub Date: May 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-55970-853-1

Page Count: 552

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2008

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