Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Book Review: Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan

Ever since Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, I’ve been planning to read Red Sorghum, one of his most famous works set in the time of the Japanese occupation and the Second World War. Since I knew that Mo Yan is a member of the Cultural Affairs Department of the People’s Liberation Army, I expected another Mikhail Sholokhov. I turned out to be totally wrong. Those who have read Sholokhov would know that Sholokhov paints good and bad (read that the good communists and the bad Czarists and petty bourgeois) in black and white. Mo Yan, on the other hand, at least in Red Sorghum, is a uniquely talented story teller who delights in portraying life in vivid contrasts, terrific joie de vivre suddenly being replaced by excruciating pain, delightful surprises being taken over by extreme sorrow. The setting for his novel, the Northeast Gaomi Township, is a place of extreme beauty, the land of sorghum, which the locals use to make wine. Sorghum is a life giver and entertainer – everyone in the Northeast Gaomi Township drinks sorghum wine. The narrator’s grandfather, Yu Zhan’ao, is a bandit who managed to marry Dai Fenglin, a pretty woman after killing her rich husband and father-in-law, all with her silent acquiescence. You see, Dai Fenglin’s husband had leprosy and her father had married her off to the leper just to get a black mule for himself. Yu Zhan’ao’s execution of the murders and his subsequent marriage to Dai Fenglin would not be out of place in a Bollywood blockbuster.

There are so many characters who are so exciting, so out of the ordinary that one feels a novel could have been written around each of them. There’s Arhat Liu, a man who loved his mules so much that he broke their legs, after they had been confiscated by the Japanese, and was skinned alive for his pains. There’s Nine Dreams Cao, an honest and upright magistrate who does not hesitate to use beatings to extract confessions and still does not always get it right. There’s Spotted Neck, a bandit whom Yu Zhan’ao admires and later kills. There’s Black Eye who heads the Iron Society, which believes in the power of black magic and whose soldiers charge at armed enemy soldiers chanting “Amalai” and achieve a certain degree of success, only to be mowed down later.

It’s not just the people who are so unique and interesting. The funerals one attends when reading the Red Sorghum are out of the world. In the midst of so much fighting and poverty, so much money and symbolism is invested in funerals. Dogs. I still can’t decide if Mo Yan likes or hates dogs. The narrator’s family keeps dogs, more as guard dogs than anything else. After a Japanese massacre when dead bodies are piled up on the outskirts of the Northeast Gaomi Township, dogs feast on the corpses. The narrator’s family go out of the way to chase the dogs away, using up most of their precious ammunition. The dogs on their part go back to their primitive traits and form gangs to eat the corpses and attack those trying to chase them away. The fighting is fierce and deadly and some humans die. The narrator’s father, Douguan, loses one of his balls. Toward the end when the Jiao Gao are desperately looking for a way to fight off hunger, cold and the Japanese, Pocky Chen suggests a way out, one which harnesses the dogs in the vicinity.

I always thought that a ride in a sedan chair carried by four bearers would be as comfortable as a ride can get. Oh no! For Mo Yan, the inside of the sedan, which carries Dai Fenglin to her husband’s home is like a coffin. The walls oozed grease and there were flies inside. The sedan bearers, when they want to have fun, tease the bride sitting inside and rock the sedan so violently that the bride throws up!

I’ve heard of feet binding practised in the China of yore, but I never really thought anyone would find a small foot (the result of many years of painful binding which cracks the bones and causes the toes to turn under) attractive. Mo Yan tells that the five feet four inch Dai Fenglin had toes which were three inch golden lotuses. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind. When she was being carried in a sedan to her husband’s home, one of her tiny feet poked out of the sedan and the sight of that incomparably delicate, lovely thing nearly drove the soul out of the bearers’ bodies.

As I read Red Sorghum, I waited in vain for that rare reference to the Chinese Communist Party, which would show the Party as the defender of the common man and a force for good. I waited in vain. In the few confrontations between local Red guards and the poor farmers, the Reds don’t come out looking so good. There is a stray mention of the back-yard furnace campaign during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 which apparently resulted in the family’s wok being confiscated. Toward the end, the narrator visits Northeast Gaomi Township and finds that the place has been planted with hybrid Sorghum which he loathes. ‘Hybrid sorghum never seems to ripen, Its grey-green eyes seem never to be fully opened. I stand in front of Second Grandma’s grave and look out at those ugly bastards that occupy the domain of the red sorghum. They assume the name of sorghum, but are bereft of tall, straight stalks; they assume the name of sorghum, but are devoid of the dazzling sorghum colour. Lacking the soul and bearing of sorghum, they pollute the pure air of Northeast Gaomi Township with their dark, gloomy, ambiguous faces.’

Is hybrid sorghum used as a metaphor for change, I wondered? Is Mo Yan trying to suggest that the Communist Party has not made things better? After a great of thought, I have come to the conclusion that Mo Yan is not trying to say anything of that sort. Red sorghum has been replaced with hybrid sorghum. The narrator liked red sorghum. He does not like hybrid sorghum. Period.

Here’s an interesting article which suggests that writers like Mo Yan carefully criticise lower ranking Party officials once in a while, but never question those at the top, who are apparently unaware of the bad things that happen at the village level. Maybe that’s a fair comment, but Mo Yan is one helluva writer who, going by Red Sorghum, deserved the Nobel.

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