When Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2012, the judges must have known about “Frog,” the socially conscious novel he published in China in 2009. While his other recent books, such as “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” and “POW!,” have taken a Monty Python approach to depicting life under Mao Zedong and his successors, “Frog” is a more serious affair. Available in English for the first time, it grapples with China’s controversial one-child policy.
The policy was instituted in 1979 to slow China’s exploding population growth, and “Frog” mostly concerns the tactics that people used to get around the rule and the brutal methods that authorities used to enforce it. In outrageous vignettes, Mo Yan dramatizes the pain and exasperation felt by villagers who decry the policy as unnatural and are especially frustrated if their first and only child is a girl. But he also gives equal time to justifications of the policy. A midwife-turned-abortionist named Gugu does the math: “Family planning is absolutely essential. If we let people have all the babies they want, that’s thirty million a year, three hundred million a decade. At that rate, in fifty years the Chinese population alone would flatten the earth. So we must lower the birth rate, no matter what it costs. That will be China’s greatest contribution to humanity.”
Tadpole, Gugu’s nephew and the novel’s narrator, concurs: “If no one had done what she did, it is truly hard to say what China might be like today.” More environmentally aware than his fellow villagers, he adds: “When all is said and done, we live together on this tiny planet, with its finite resources. Once they’re gone, they’re not coming back, and seen from this perspective, Westerners’ critiques of China’s family-planning policies are unfair.” Tadpole’s case is strengthened years later when he is almost killed by a teenage hoodlum who turns out to be one of the few fetuses that Gugu, in a moment of weakness, decided against terminating.
But this book is no polemic supporting the necessary if heartless one-child policy. The emotional scenes of fathers and mothers risking punishment, fines and even their lives to have babies outshout the quiet explanations given by the main characters.
Tadpole struggles with all this as he tries to give birth to a play about Gugu’s career. The novel takes the form of four long letters that he writes to a former teacher, recording anecdotes about Gugu in a rambling, episodic style. It is artfully artless: At one point, he apologizes, “Using this sort of language to describe Gugu’s work may seem inappropriate, but I can’t come up with anything better,” and he thanks his correspondent for telling him “that a little bit of reorganisation could turn it into a publishable novel.”
But Tadpole is a rather bland character. More vibrant is Gugu herself, who undergoes many transformations: from a gifted midwife, to an independent-minded woman who defies the brutal dictates of the Cultural Revolution, to an equally brutal enforcer of the one-child policy. Late in life, she repents by marrying a man who molds clay babies based on her descriptions of all the fetuses she aborted.“I admit there are issues with Gugu’s mental state,” Tadpole says diplomatically.
The script of his nine-act play functions as the novel’s epilogue. In it,Tadpole, now in his 50s, is celebrating the one-month anniversary of his first son when a crazed surrogate mother steals the child. A televised courtroom scene then reenacts a Ming-era Judge Bao crime story (one of many allusions to classic Chinese fiction). Here, Mo Yan brings back the hallucinatory realism for which he’s known. It’s a bizarre but fitting conclusion to this unconventional novel, once again expertly rendered by Mo Yan’s translator, Howard Goldblatt.
Only recently has China relaxed its one-child policy somewhat, and “Frog” is both an invaluable record of that social experiment and another display of Mo Yan’s attractively daring approach to fiction. The Nobel committee chose wisely.
Moore is the author of “The Novel: An Alternative History.”
By Mo Yan
Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Viking. 388 pp. $27.95