LIFE AND DEATH ARE
WEARING ME OUT
By Mo Yan
Translated from the
Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Arcade. 540 pp. $29.95
To encompass the ideological insanity of Mao Zedong's policies and the unimaginable horrors he inflicted on the Chinese people requires a boldly unconventional style. That need has been filled by this wild man of Chinese fiction: Mo Yan -- a pseudonymic phrase meaning "Don't speak." Over the last 20 years, Mo Yan has been writing brutally vibrant stories about rural life in China that flout official Party ideology and celebrate individualism over conformity. (How he has escaped imprisonment -- or worse -- I don't know.) He also flouts literary conformity, spiking his earthy realism with fantasy, hallucination and metafiction.
His previous novel, the voluptuously titled Big Breasts & Wide Hips, revealed the horrors of Chinese life during the first half of the 20th century; his new one, the exuberantly imaginative Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out, covers the second, even worse half. The story, which revives the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, begins on Jan. 1, 1950, in hell. Lord Yama, king of the underworld, is examining a benevolent landowner named Ximen Nao, who was brutally 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 that killed tens of millions of people (and an unrecorded number of Chinese animals -- the novel reminds us this Earth belongs to them, too). The donkey is angry at first when he learns his trusted farmhand Lan Lian has married Ximen's concubine, but he's mollified as Lan carries on as a fiercely independent farmer, the last holdout in collectivized China. The donkey is killed during the great famine, accompanied by appropriate animal imagery: "Then the famine came," Mo Yan writes, "turning the people into wild animals, cruel and unfeeling. After eating all the bark from trees and the edible grass, a gang of them charged into the Ximen estate compound like a pack of starving wolves." Ximen is reincarnated next as an ox, then a pig, a dog, a monkey and finally -- on New Year's Eve 2000 -- as a child. On his fifth birthday, the child and elderly Lan Lian get together and, taking turns, narrate the novel we've just read.
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." But brave individuals emerge as the true heroes; aside from the animal reincarnations of Ximen Nao, these include Lan Lian for refusing to give in to communal pressure, and his son Lan Jiefang, who defies convention by abandoning his legal wife (from an arranged marriage) for a woman he 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.
But I don't want to leave the impression that this is a gimmicky book that makes light of recent Chinese history. Born in 1955, Mo Yan endured the worst of it -- he, too, was so poor that he ate tree bark -- and there are descriptions that will shock readers into realizing this is no literary game. Indeed, reality keeps outrunning the author's satire. Near the end of the novel, a born-again capitalist devises a Cultural Revolution theme park, as tasteless as a Nazi theme park in Poland. And yet there are now Cultural Revolution-themed cafés in China, favored by urban hipsters with an almost American ignorance of history.
Mo Yan offers insights into communist ideology and predatory capitalism that we ignore at our peril. This "lumbering animal of a story," as he calls it, combines the appeal of a family saga set against tumultuous events with the technical bravura of innovative fiction. Catch a ride on this wheel of transmigration. ·
Steven Moore is writing a history of the novel.