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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.


[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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Dave Eggers’ newest

Book Review Your Fathers

Did you ever wish you could get straight answers from some people that you felt had had a great influence in your life … especially a negative one? Say if you could isolate them, and, one at a time, have privacy with them, and have a compelling way of making them tell the truth about their feelings, their motives, and their actions …

Being normally an e-reader nowadays, I don’t visit my local library as much as I used to. (I say this with a bit of sadness.) When I do visit, I like to graze around the “recently arrived” section for new reading ideas. A couple of weeks ago, this paid off when I came upon Dave Eggers’ newest (2014) novel with the offbeat title Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? I had never read Eggers before, but had heard of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

As is my custom, I will not spoil your reading enjoyment by giving away too much of the plot, so fear not! But when Your Fathers opens, we are in a barracks at a decommissioned and deserted military base on the Pacific, where Thomas (the protagonist) has chained an astronaut to a post. The astronaut, who was chloroformed and wakes up in this place, is understandably afraid for his life; but Thomas (who has apparently never committed anything like this kind of criminal act before) just seems to want to have a conversation. It turns out that these two men were classmates. The astronaut is a famous figure, but was nevertheless thwarted in his ambition to ride on the Space Shuttle by the termination of that program. Thomas wants to know how the astronaut is able to come to terms (if he is) with the non-fulfillment of his long-term desire.

Thomas also brings other “guests” to this desolate location; they similarly find themselves chained after waking from being anesthetized. Each guest is in a separate barracks, and as the chapters progress, we move from one to the next. Thomas is a young-ish guy who feels (as he imagines the astronaut feels), that his ambitions have been thwarted and that his life is ridden with frustration and disappointment, through no fault of his own. He sees himself as setting up to reach a target, and then finding that “the target was moved” due to the vagaries of our uncaring society.

One of the chained guests is a congressman; Thomas probes to see how much his (Thomas’) life could have been improved by more humane legislative practices. Perhaps Thomas blames the system too much for his own inadequacies? But then there is another guest, a policeman who was instrumental in a tragic incident involving a mentally unstable Asian-American man who was Thomas’s close friend. (The friend provides the origin for the book’s quirky title.) Did the police have to act as they did? Or was it a case of police misconduct, and a subsequent cover-up? Both sides of the story are given; any conclusions are left to the reader.

There is a love interest (of a certain kind) in the book as well. On one of his beach walks, Thomas encounters an attractive female and idealizes her into the kind of romantic object he has always been looking for. Can he get her to buy into his rosy vision?

This is an unusual novel, in that the entire book is made up of dialogue. (A la James Joyce, the speech is demarcated not by quotation marks but by dashes, giving it somehow a special flavor.) It also takes place in confined locations, so it is natural to think that it could have been not a novel, but a play. Would a play have worked as well?  Or even better?  I’m not sure. As is my wont, I have not read any reviews before doing my writeup, but will do so in the near future, and am curious what other people think about this issue in particular … and about the book in general.

In this novel there is humor, drama, and suspense (what will Thomas do with his chain-ees?) How much is Thomas the helpless victim of an uncaring, even criminal society? How much could he have materially improved his own lot by taking more responsibility for himself? Let the reader decide. I recommend this book!

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