While China rejoices in its first Nobel Prize for Literature, the rest of the world can rejoice in the soon-to-be availability of the works of the delightfully candid and massively talented Mo Yan.
In Chinese, the pseudonym Mo Yan means "don't speak," the advice given to him by his parents. The son of farmers, the 57-year-old Guan Moye has become famous for his epics of rural Chinese life, filled with social criticism but often laced with folklore elements. His novel, Red Sorghum, was made into an internationally famous film by Zhang Yimou, who also adapted a comic Mo Yan story into the film Happy Days. "Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives," the Swedish Academy said in the award citation, "Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent... of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition."
Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is an extended fairytale the size of the Ramayana, in the tradition of Don Quixote, Gargantua, and the Monkey King. Ximen Nao, a good, industrious landlord, is unjustly executed as a rich exploiter, but he's born back into life again and again in the same family--as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, and a monkey. This cosmic adventure takes the reader through the whole sweep of Chinese history in personal and political upheaval from 1950 to 2005, all seen through animal eyes.
The chuckling, good-natured narrative is 500-plus pages packed with dramatic scenes and lovable characters, unpredictable storylines and punchy surprises, a berserk soap-opera especially rich in human-animal relationships. Heightening the comedy are appearances by the author himself as a minor character, a mischievous, unattractive troublemaker always lurking in the background, writing stories and usually getting things wrong. And just in case you're not impressed yet, Mo Yan wrote this entire epic in only 42 days, more than 500,000 characters written by hand with brush and ink.
The intensity and surprise of the Mo Yan experience are like reading Moby Dick or the Iliad for the first time. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.
Mo Yan's titles in print, in order of original publication:
Red Sorghum (Penguin, $17) A multi-generational novel about a farming family between 1923 and 1976, enduring the war of resistance against Japanese invaders, the Communist revolution and the Cultural Revolution.
The Garlic Ballads (Arcade, $14.95) Three tales of love, loyalty and vengeance interwoven with apocalyptic riots when government-encouraged garlic crops are left to rot in the fields. Banned in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Republic of Wine (Arcade, $14.95) An investigator on the trail of cannibalism rumors meets Diamond Jin, notorious for his ability to drink anyone under the table as well as his fondness for young human flesh.
Big Breasts and Wide Hips (Arcade, $17.95) Mother is born in 1900 into patriarchal China, married at 17, and gives birth to nine children--eight strong girls and one weak boy, the narrator, who tells the story of Mother risking her life to save her daughters and grandchildren.
Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh (Arcade, $14.95) Eight short works of fiction, including the title story about an unemployed factory worker who turns a rundown bus into a retreat for lovers, which was made into the film Happy Days.
Sandalwood Death (University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95, January 2013) Political corruption during China's last imperial epoch, set during the Boxer Rebellion, focusing on a female protagonist and the three paternal figures in her life.
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (Arcade, $16.95) An unjustly executed man is reincarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog and a monkey in the same family, seeing Chinese history from 1950 to 2005 through animal eyes.
Change (Seagull/University of Chicago Press, $15) A short autobiographical novel about the small changes that happen to small people when history is in flux, moving backward and forward in time, focusing on average people in everyday circumstances.
Pow! (Seagull/University of Chicago Press, $27.50, December 15) A dark comedy about the confession of a new novice to a wise old monk--plenty of sins of violence and excess, not to mention a disturbing variety of meats, as he tells a macabre little family tale.