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.