THE LAUREATE: Mo Yan was born in 1955 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution and all the other poorly thought out schemes Chairman Mao tried to use to make China’s economy functional. He began writing fiction in earnest while he was enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. He writes work largely in demotic Chinese and entirely by hand, claiming that typing in transliterated pinyin limits the words available to him. Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in 2012.
WHAT I’M READING: The Garlic BalladsREVIEW: I loved this book, but it took a little to warm up to it. The Paradise County commissioner, at the command of the central committee, has decreed that all farmers in Paradise County must grow garlic, for which they would be quite well paid. There is a garlic surplus beyond anything anyone had the storage capacity or financial supply for, so the government stopped buying garlic. There was a riot at the commisioner’s office, which was torched to the ground. The people witnesses pointed fingers at were hauled into jail and given a sham trial, then sent to labor camps. After this, the higher-ups in the party realized that, wait, maybe the local officials messed up after all. So, like priests who diddled little boys, they were reassigned to other districts and no apologies or restitution were offered. The story is told in flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness, and the novel is constructed fantastically. But what really did it for me was the headers at each chapter. They all purport to be ballads by Zhang Kou, and they are presented typographically with the standard markers of collected poetry. [“Robble robble robble” -Author, on Occasion] But in chapter 19, the poem is interrupted by the interrogating officer kicking Zhang Kou in the face and screaming at him.
Now, we’ve talked a lot about communism here on All the Nobels, but thus far we have only seen Soviet Communism. In China, it was just as bad: the revolutionary zeal that swept the old order away left in its place a vast and terrifying, self-perpetuating System that ground people into dust for its own survival. China, unlike Russia, has its own longstanding traditional culture that also contributes to the sum of human misery. One of the main characters, Gao Ma, has fallen in love with his neighbor’s daughter, Fang Jinju. The Fang family has negotiated a complex deal with two families from nearby villages to marry off all three of their children. Gao Ma tries to elope with Jinju, but he is caught and they are both beaten savagely. When Gao Ma tries to complain to the village police, the officer shrugs at the law banning forced arranged marriages and calls Jinju’s brothers a bunch of pussies for not beating Gao Ma to death. This is a novel about a vastly ugly period of time, but it is a beautiful novel. (Granted, I think Mo Yan’s nomination might have been a bit of a softball for China after they treated Liu Xiaobo like crap for winning the Peace Prize in 2010, but he was definitely a worthy winner.)
WHAT’S NEXT: Several of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, because plays are easy and pretty short.