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.