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By Mo Yan
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
New York: Arcade Publishing, 1988

ISBN # 1-55879-775-5
290 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2012

The novel is set in a remote county of China in 1985. The Cultural Revolution has brought significant changes to this area and farmers are required to grow garlic. However, in this particular season there has been a tremendous crop of garlic all over and since the excess has glutted the market much of the garlic is simply rotting in the fields, filling the air with foul odors and costing many of the farmers’s their livelihoods.

The farmers are desperate, angry and frustrated. The government is not only ignoring them, but forcing them into desperate measures both for their own survival and for any sense of meaning in their lives.

Ideologically the driving force behind the farmers’ frustrations and rebellions is the blind musician, Zhang Kou, who sings his ballads pointing out to the farmers their situation and how it is the corrupt political system of the Cultural Revolution which is causing all their difficulties. Even in Kou’s protests, however, it is interesting that it isn’t as much The Cultural Revolution itself which is blamed, but the corruption connected with it. It’s as though Kou’s plea is for the Cultural Revolution to be what it aspired to be rather than what it has deteriorated into.

We follow three major players, Gao Ma, a 40ish ex-soldier, secondly is the family of Jinju, the young woman Gao Ma wishes to marry. Finally there is Gao Yang, another local farmer.

Gao Ma invested in some land and has grown a large garlic crop, most of which is rotting in the field for lack of a market. He is not physically well, but nonetheless falls madly in love with his young neighbor, Jinju. She seems to love him as well, but the complication is that her family has arranged a marriage to a wealthier man, a man Jinju doesn’t like in the slightest. However, there is a second “force” in her family, resisting the plea of Gao Ma and Jinju and trying to force the arranged marriage on her. These are the brothers of Jinju who will also get brides as part of the deal.

Technically the new law disallows arranged marriages if a person is not willing, but in the rural area such laws are routinely ignored, the local officers of the law use raw power to advantage themselves and the larger government allows these abuses.

There is great discouragement within the village in general, but one hopeful neighbor tries to reassure Gao Ma to have courage:

“This is, after all, a new society, so sooner or later reason will prevail.”

Ah, such hope and faith in the face of the levels of corruption we see in the story. Gao Ma is not only courageous; he is, perhaps, a bit foolhardy. It doesn’t go well for him and when he is in prison he denounces his guards, telling them:

“It’s not socialism I hate, it’s you. To you socialism is a mere signboard, but to me it’s a social formation – concrete, not abstract. It’s embedded in public ownership of the means of production and in a system of distribution. Unfortunately it’s also embodied in a corrupt life like you.”

. . . I hate corrupt officials like you, who under the guise of the flag of the Communist Party destroy its reputation. I hate you all.”

Gao Yang is the other main character. He is roughly the same age a Gao Ma and also a garlic farmer. However, he is a wimpy fellow terrified of the Red Guards and any figure of authority. He fears their power and their arbitrary behavior. He ends up involved in an auto accident that has political consequences and suffers dearly for this incident.

The local police are brutal, using electric prods, routine beatings and all sorts of clearly illegal tactics to terrorize the people. Song Anni is an especially cruel young policewoman who wears high heels even in this rural, backwater and muddy area.

Gao Yang is politically very naïve. He sort of grudgingly accepts the police, even in their brutality. He tells us: “The people’s hearts are made of steel, but the Law is a forge.” He’s DEFINITELY not a counter-revolutionary as is Gao Ma.

Jinju’s mother seems to represent yet a different view of the situation:

“Everywhere you turn these days someone is trying to cheat us out of something. Anyone who doesn’t cheat back is a fool. If even the government co-op is dishonest, what’s to stop us poor peasants?”

She seems closer to the author’s position than in the more revolutionary Gao Ma or the trusting Gao Yang.

Yet all three of these characters are moved by the sentiment in one of Zhang Kou’s ballads:

“Paradise County once produced bold heroic men.
Now we see nothing but flaccid weak-kneed cowards
With furrowed brows and scowling faces:
They sigh and fret before their rotting garlic.”

The local Secretary, Huang, justifies himself to Gao Yang:

“. . . you’d better straighten out your thinking! Your mother enjoyed a life of leisure and luxury by exploiting others [she had been a land owner, but desperately poor]. It was only proper that she be reeducated and reformed through labor.”

He seems to need desperately to believe in this fiction.

Yet poor Gao Yang is never really able to see the system as it is. Rather, he sees it reflecting nature itself. He says:

“When the old man up there made people, he used different materials. The good stuff went for officials, the so-so stuff went for workers, and whatever was left over for us peasants."

Nobel Prize winning author Mo Yan’s treatment of this incident to elucidate the corruption of the revolution is brilliant. As described above he has several centrally different views of the revolution represented by major characters, and the use of the ballads of the blind musician is a clever way to bring the larger perspectives into the world of the everyday happenings.

This is the first novel I have ever read by a Chinese author. I don’t know if the temporal sequencing is a trait of Mo Yan, or something common to Chinese authors. But, for a while I had a difficulty in adapting to it. He has three stories going on simultaneously concerning the glut of garlic and the official response. However, in the telling of it the author has the three stories overlapping because the characters are all in the same tiny village area and interrelated. Thus there is a certain craziness in the temporal overlaps and criss-crossing in time. Each story is told as though it were a separate and unrelated tale, but they all overlap and thus we get these strange sequences where things that one character is just approaching has already happened to another character some 10-20 pages earlier. Once I got used to this it flowed quite well, but it definitely brought me up short the first few times it happened.

The novel is very powerful and sad. The mass of local people are still steeped in traditional life, and then this very powerful, but horribly corrupt new power comes in and not only controls their economic lives, but tries, by fiat and raw power, to change centuries-old customs and ways of life.

Author Mo Yan succeeds is raising troubling questions about the nature of life in China of the 1980s.

Bob Corbett


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