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A foreign experience

Red Sorghum is a rather long novel, at 359 pages.  Most of it is taken up with scenes of violence, much of the violence being rendered in graphic detail.  Reading it was not easy for me.  Yet, I found that the rewards far outweighed the difficulties.

Published in 1986, this is a multi-generational family chronicle that takes place in China, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.  Much of the bloodshed arises from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), during which the Japanese invaded China and perpertrated many atrocities.  Between 10 and 25 million Chinese civilians perished in this war.  As if that were not enough, violent confrontations also occur, in this novel, between rival Chinese groups.

But now to get to the side of the book that just didn’t let me give up on it.  To start, there is how the storytelling flows back and forth, non-chronologically.  A character might come to an unfortunate end, … but can happily come to life again later in the narrative, when we are at an earlier point in time.  In a way, memory triumphs over mortality.

Then there is the “inside” view of the Chinese mentality that we get from a Chinese novelist, writing about his own country.  The view there of an individual life (based on their huge population) seems rather different from the Western outlook:

The old man with the dark face and white beard shouted, “What are you crying for? This was a great victory! There are four hundred million of us Chinese. If we take on the Japs, one on one, how do you think their little country will fare? If one hundred million of us fought them to the death, they’d be wiped out, but there’d still be three hundred million of us. That makes us the victors, doesn’t it? Commander Yu , this was a crushing victory!”

“Old uncle, you’re just saying that to make me feel good.”

“No, Commander Yu, it really was a great victory. Give the order; tell us what to do. China may have nothing else, but it’s got plenty of people.”

Also … I had certainly heard of foot-binding before.  Even after reading this book, it still seems barbaric to me.  But now, like the books’s narrator, perhaps I have a slightly more nuanced view.  These women do have a special quality to their walk …

A yard in length, the cloth bindings were wound around all but the big toes until the bones cracked and the toes turned under. The pain was excruciating. My mother also had bound feet, and just seeing them saddened me so much that I felt compelled to shout: ‘Down with feudalism! Long live liberated feet!’ The results of Grandma’s suffering were two three-inch golden lotuses, and by the age of sixteen she had grown into a well-developed beauty. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind.  [1]

And then (though not specific to the Chinese) there are the dogs!  There is a section many pages long, in which the behavior of a pack of dogs is chronicled in detail.  (Indeed, one of the book’s five parts is called “Dog Ways”.)  I will admit that what the dogs are actually engaged in is rather horrible.  (Think of the dead on a battlefield, and you will probably get the idea.)  But the writing is totally absorbing.  One feels (with due respect to the author) that an actual canine is narrating this section!  You may get a small idea from this excerpt:

One of the battles [for domination of the pack] occurred when a dog in Green’s brigade, an impudent male with thick lips, bulging eyes, and a coat of bluish fur, took liberties with a pretty spotted-faced female who was one of Red’s favourites. Infuriated, Red charged the motley male and knocked him into the river. After climbing out and shaking the water off his fur, Thick Lips launched into an angry tirade, which earned him the jeers of the other dogs.

Green barked loudly at Red to defend the honour of his brigade, but Red ignored him and knocked the motley cur back into the river. As he swam back to shore, his nostrils skimming the surface, he looked like a huge river rat. The spotted-faced female stood beside Red, wagging her tail.

Green barked contemptuously at Red, who returned the insult.

One must surely mention the sorghum, which one sees in the book’s title … and just about everywhere in the novel.

Mo Yan himself admits that he has been greatly influenced by William Faulkner.  Just as Faulkner has his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so Mo Yan has his (semi-fictional) Northeast Gaomi Township.  The main activity there is growing sorghum, a grain used for food, and also to make “sorghum wine” — so called in the novel, but actually a distilled spirit called “baijiu”.


Making this “wine” is the occupation engaged in by the central family in the book.  But beyond that, sorghum is the central “leitmotif” of the novel.  It is constantly mentioned in all kinds of metaphorical constructions, … but somehow instead of being annoying, this reader (at least) felt it as a strong unifiying element that helps us gain distance from narrative that can be hard to assimilate, because it is so painful.  At the end of the book, we gain some understanding as to why the red sorghum was so much on the narrator’s mind:

The sorghum that looked like a sea of blood, whose praises I have sung over and over, has been drowned in a raging flood of revolution and no longer exists, replaced by short-stalked, thick-stemmed, broad-leafed plants covered by a white powder and topped by beards as long as dogs’ tails. High yield, with a bitter, astringent taste, it is the source of rampant constipation. With the exception of cadres above the rank of branch secretary, all the villagers’ faces are the colour of rusty iron.

More than just being itself, the red sorghum is symbolic of the glorious past.

Along with Faulkner, Mo Yan also claims Gabriel García Márquez as an influence; and indeed, Red Sorghum has been cited as an example of “magic realism”.  Events that in ordinary life would be unbearably painful are transmuted into richer, more complex things.  Example:  near the end of the book, a female character, evidently near death, appears to have gone berserk, mouthing abuse and cursing the family around her.  But it turns out that an evil spirit has taken possession of her body.  Finally, a Taoist has to be summoned from the village to exorcise the demon!

Red Sorghum was originally written in Chinese.  I read the able translation by Howard Goldblatt.  I don’t normally read translated books (having the purist position that it’s “like taking a shower with a raincoat on”), [2] but an experience like this shows me how much I might, generally, be missing …

Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.  At the end of his Nobel lecture, he tells a story that I’d like to repeat here.  It has nothing to do with Red Sorghum!  I just like the story a lot:

Bear with me, please, for one last story, one my grandfather told me many years ago: A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen. “Among the eight of us,” one of them said, “is someone who must have offended the heavens with a terrible deed. The guilty person ought to volunteer to step outside to accept his punishment and spare the innocent from suffering.” Naturally, there were no volunteers. So one of the others came up with a proposal: “Since no one is willing to go outside, let’s all fling our straw hats toward the door. Whoever’s hat flies out through the temple door is the guilty party, and we’ll ask him to go out and accept his punishment.” So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them.

NOTES

[1] Though foot binding was banned in 1912 by the new Republic of China government, the practice continued in some rural areas till about mid-century.

[2] “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”  Though of course I am not talking about poetry here, this aphorism came to mind.  I encountered it in the 2016 movie Paterson.  I feel like it has been around longer, but cannot find an earlier source.

 

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