His latest novel, and one of his best to be published in English translation, is “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.” It covers the second half of the 20th century, including the ideological insanity of Mao Zedong’s policies and the unimaginable horrors he inflicted on his people. Mo Yan boldly made use of the Buddhist notion of reincarnation to structure this imaginative novel. It begins on Jan. 1, 1950, in hell, where Lord Yama, king of the underworld, is examining a benevolent landowner named Ximen Nao, who was executed two years earlier (like thousands of landowners) so that his land could be redistributed to peasants. Frustrated that Ximen will not admit any guilt, Yama punishes him by sending him back to his village in the form of a donkey. Ximen remains in that form for the next 10 years, witnessing the Land Reform Movement and the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61) that killed 30 million Chinese (and an unrecorded number of animals).
It’s a grimly entertaining overview of recent Chinese history. As a “wise German shepherd” summarizes it, “People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid of their own shadows, in the 1980s they carefully weighed people’s words and actions, and in the 1990s they were simply evil.” In contrast to the sheeplike “people,” brave individuals emerge as the true heroes of the novel. Aside from the animal reincarnations of Ximen Nao, these include Lan Lian for refusing to give in to communal pressure, and his son Lan Jiafang, who defies convention by abandoning his legal wife (from an arranged marriage) for a younger woman he deeply loves, ruining himself in the process. The most colorful individual is the novelist himself, who pops in and out of the story, usually to the annoyance of the other characters.