book #3: red sorghum by mo yan


very far behind in writing about the books i’m reading, but still steadily making my way through (hopefully) 52 books this year.

‘red sorghum’ is a tricky novel. originally written in chinese, the translation by howard goldblatt indicates an author with a relentless imagination, an accessible yet absurd sense of humor, an occasionally overwhelming richness of phrase, and a straightforward, disturbing coldness to describing violence and the grim realities of existence. this all amounts to a bit of a jarring journey through several generations of a rural chinese family. a picaresque, marquez-like adventure rife with strains of magical realism yet equally reminiscent of the caustic bleakness of steinbeck’s dust bowlers. some sections are compelling, funny, warm, others tedious, confounding, and disturbingly violent. a confusing experience, not least because of an attention to a history most western readers will not be overly familiar with, but also because of a non-linear narrative structure, a lack of distinct character names (there is a sole narrator, who mostly identifies the principle characters as father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, second grandmother, etc.), and an odd inconsistency of tone that leaves you wondering whether to be horrified or laughing.

the story relates the experiences of three generations of the shandong family from 1926 to 1976, but rests for the majority of the novel in the 1937 – 1945 period during the second sino-japanese war. if you have any knowledge of this period in chinese history you will be aware that this conflict is infamous for the grotesqueness of the brutality exacted upon the chinese people (‘the rape of nanking’ by iris chang is one controversial book shedding light on this time period). mo yan is unsparing in his descriptions not only of the violence of the japanese invaders, but also of the infighting between local gangs, militias, and of neighbors upon one another. if you are squeamish about descriptions of people being skinned alive (and who isn’t?) you will have a difficult time with this novel. and if that’s not enough there’s also various disembowelings, gunshot wounds, graphic sexual assaults, child murders, and any number of other atrocities that will test the will of your stomach and at times patience. the unfortunate reality is mo yan is probably being mild in his attention to these gory details, it is a truth he forces us to accept, but regardless it is an extremely shocking read.

if the book were simply an account of human indecency it would probably be a more understandable yet decidedly less compelling book. it is not these historical fiction sections of the novel that leave the strongest impression, however but the narrator’s relating of his grandfather’s courting of his grandmother. his grandmother is sent by her parents to a pre-arranged marriage with a rich leper who owns a sorghum wine distillery. the narrator’s grandfather has been  hired as one of the carriers of her sedan chair to escort her from her hometown to the rotting old man’s house. obviously, all does not go as planned. these courtship sections weave a swashbuckling yarn (the roguish grandfather fighting and drinking his way to the wily and headstrong grandmother’s heart) but also contain the novel’s most vibrant and absurd humor. for instance the grandfather accidentally discovers that his own urine is the secret ingredient to creating the perfect sorghum wine which in turn leads to the family’s financial success. you start to think you’ve wandered into a tale that could easily find good company among classic ribaldry.

the novel wanders back and forth between this kind of fable and grim realism, often with the same characters, weaving folklore and history at times seamlessly and often with jarring effect. ultimately i’m not sure it works, but in truth i also found the translation to be suspect at times (particularly confused by the names of some characters, where seemingly the chinese has been translated literally, making the names land strangely and inconsistently as i’m imagining they probably would not in chinese. e.g. nine dreams, five monkeys, fang seven in a novel where you also list names like yu zhan’ao and wang guang? perhaps i’m ignorant though and missing something culturally in this case.)

the heavy-handedness of the central metaphor (hint: it has everything to do with the title) becomes just a little trying, and where the novel seems to end on a note of triumph, continuance, and heroism, the novel doesn’t necessarily support a vision of admirable survival that one might usually expect. in that sense, perhaps this is truly a chinese novel. the weaving of the hilarious with the disturbing speaks to a culture that has spent centuries with its suffering. a culture that has a complicated history that isn’t easily defined or evaluated, certainly not by a westerner who hasn’t even visited china let alone spent time wading through its indubitably complex social perspectives. this is a book a person should be glad to read, but will more than likely want to have more information and grounding to be able to truly appreciate its nuances.

one further note, mo yan received the nobel prize for literature in 2012. nobel laureate herta muller called this decision a ‘disaster’. salman rushdie called him a ‘patsy’. writers and critics around the world decried this award suggesting mo yan was undeserving given his seeming allegiance to the chinese communist party and his lack of critical voice against purported violations of human rights. mo yan himself has said that everything he needs to say is contained within his writing. for the purposes of reading i attach myself to this sentiment in approaching this book and generally to any work of art. it seems far too convenient for western critics to demand a chinese writer express charged political opinions when they do not live under an authoritarian government. the demand seems to be that mo yan be another liu xiaobo (currently incarcerated chinese writer/activist awarded the nobel peace prize in 2010), but this is unreasonable. we don’t often criticize western writers for maintaining an apolitical public life, nor should we do so for artists simply because human rights violations are objectively more prominent in their country. it is too easy to ask someone to behave unilaterally when we are not in their circumstances. the threat of arrest and imprisonment is a very real consideration for chinese dissidents and while such behavior is perhaps noble, courageous, and worthy of consideration, i don’t know that we can demand such choices of everyone. especially not solely because the individual has created lauded works of art. we’re all incredibly brave until we’re actually asked to be brave, so perhaps we should be more forgiving. just my two cents.

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