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How the novelist helped his heroine

In May, 2018 my wife and I were on vacation in Spain. We took an easy side-trip to Gibraltar, to spend the day. I (momentarily) mastered my acrophobia to take a cable-car to the top of the storied Rock, which had great views … along with the famous monkey residents (barbary macaques).

Descended from the Top of the Rock, I also encountered the to-be-expected tourist items, but the inevitable fish-and-chips, accompanied with John Smith’s Ale, were really not so hard to endure. 🙂 There was also the iconic Veddy British “pillar box”:

Being the literary character that I am, I recalled the famous (in certain circles) linkage to one of my very fave novelists, Anthony Trollope.  Trollope’s day job was with the Post Office.  In 1854 he recommended that pillar boxes be installed in the Channel Islands.  They were the first mailboxes in Britain.  By the next year they had spread to London.  No longer need one make a trek to the post office to mail a letter.

I recently finished Trollope’s novel The Duke’s Children (1880).  (I have now concluded my traversal of his “Palliser” novels.) 

One of the plot threads concerns Lady Mary, the Duke’s daughter, who is in love with a gentleman — Frank Tregear by name — whose station in life, the Duke feels, is beneath her.  He has forbidden the couple to see each other.  Lady Mary is, at one point, staying with the Countess, Lady Cantrip, who has been charged by the Duke with the challenging task of keeping an eye on her, where her romantic life is concerned.  

Though she knows the practice would be frowned upon, Mary has not actually promised not to write to Tregear.  When he writes to her, she can not resist replying.  And, in Chapter XXIV:

The next morning Lady Mary showed [Lady Cantrip] a copy of the reply which she had already sent to her lover.

Dear Frank,
You may be quite sure that I shall never give you up. I will not write more at present because papa does not wish me to do so. I shall show papa your letter and my answer.
Your own most affectionate
Mary.

“Has it gone?” asked the Countess.
“I put it myself into the pillar letter-box.” Then Lady Cantrip felt that she had to deal with a very self-willed young lady indeed.

So … if Trollope had not (in so-called “real life”) advocated for the pillar-box, who knows what might — or might not — have happened?  Would Mary have been able to navigate her way to the actual brick-and-mortar post office, unescorted as she would likely have had to be?  Who knows?  They do say “Amor vincit omnia” … but isn’t it nice that the Trollope with the day job was able to give Mary a helping hand?

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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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