Saturday, April 16, 2005

Lush life in Mo Yan

The Chinese novelist Mo Yan – whose name is a pseudonym meaning Don’t Speak – writes big, robust, earthy novels, thick with incident and capering comedy. But often it is a most unusual and complex comedy. In a scene from his recent novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Chinese and Japanese soldiers fight for control of a village (the novel is set in the time of the Sino-Japanese war of 1936), and the clothes of a Chinese soldier catch fire in an explosion. To put out the flames he runs, screaming in agony, for a big puddle of water

…covered by a profusion of wild grasses and water plants, with thick red stems and fat, tender leaves the colour of goose down, and pink, cottony flower buds. The flaming man threw himself into the puddle, sending water splashing in all directions and a host of baby frogs leaping out of their hiding places. White egg-laying butterflies fluttered into the air and disappeared into the sunlight as if consumed by the heat. Now that the flames had sputtered out, the man lay there, black as coal, gobs of mud stuck to his head and face, a tiny worm wriggling on his cheek. […] “Mother, dear Mother, I’m going to die…” A golden loach accompanied the screams from his mouth.

What a curious scene this is. A man is dying, but everything else around him throbs with life. Despite the man’s tortured screams, and his lonely descent into death crying for his mother, what we register from these sentences in a sense of profusion, of life teeming and thriving. Is this passage tragic, as death scenes often are, or would one classify it as comic? It's hard to say.

This passage also illustrates another quality of Mo Yan’s work: his exquisite attention to the workings of the natural world. He grew up in rural China - in the introduction to one of his books, Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh, he writes that because of poverty 'I had been taken out of school at a very young age, so while other kids were sitting in classrooms, I was taking out cattle to graze' - and in his work it seems a given that animals, birds, plants and the rhythms of the seasons are just as significant as human beings. Indeed, the sights and sounds of the natural world are often summoned by him in the form of beautiful similes and metaphors. Injured men fall 'like harvested wheat'; the propellers of airplanes buzz 'like hornets circling the head of a cow'; a man thinks of a woman's waist as 'a sheaf of wheat tied with a string of lilies'.

To read Mo Yan is to sense that the world is far more alive than we think it is.

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