Red Sorghum – Mo Yan
December 29, 2015 § 2 Comments
First published in the Chinese language, with cuts made, in 1987.
Later published in the Chinese language, fully restored, in 1988.
Translated by Howard Goldblatt in 1993.
I have not had much experience reading Chinese literature. I think my first was Eileen Chang, and even that was quite a few years ago, and with some encouragement from fellow blogger friends. I don’t have anything against Chinese literature. In fact, I’m hugely interested to read them. My only problem, though, is that I sometimes feel this guilty tug of not reading them in their original language.
However, Mandarin not being my first language makes it a huge hurdle. I can read and understand a lot of it, but it’s such a rich language that at the back of my head I find myself wondering if I’m missing out on subtle cues and hints that are no doubt within the lines of prose, simply because my understanding of the language is not sophisticated enough. Am I denying myself the access to a beautiful piece of writing, and even more seriously, am I doing a injustice to the author, by attempting to read it in a language that I cannot claim as my own?
Mo Yan’s name is relatively new to me. I first learnt about him when he was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years back, and I found it interesting that he decided to go with the pen name Mo Yan, which in Mandarin is 莫言, or literally translated to mean “no words”, or “silence”. For someone who produces work with such strong messages and stories and characters, the pen name seems like a jab at those who would censor his work, a reference to those who would rather he remained silent.
Red Sorghum is known as Mo Yan’s most unforgettable piece of work so far. I haven’t had the chance to read any of his other books, so I won’t comment on that. This particular book was, for me, very hard-hitting. He described a China that I feel like I can almost remember, as if my spirit was there to witness the atrocities and terrifying moments in history that have somehow been forgotten. It’s China, and not China at the same time. It’s beautiful – the sorghum fields, the meandering rivers and floating birds. It’s also gruesome – the blood and bones, the limp detached limbs and endless war. It is history – the Japanese have invaded, and the Chinese are fighting everyone: Japs, Chinese lapdogs and other patriotic countrymen. It is also fantasy – dogs have bright blue fur, eyes that shine green light in the dark, and bodies that glow a golden hue.
It’s a rich story told in stitches, jumping from two months ago, to two years ago, then back to the now, then back again to five hours before. It’s like listening to someone sitting next to you telling you their family’s history – something happened, but for you to understand it, I need to tell you what happened two hours ago, but before that, here’s the background story.
The story is anything but comforting. It doesn’t pretend to lull you into any false sense of hope, nor does it try to paint over horrifying events to soften the blow. There is no hope, people despair, and humanity is a strange thing indeed. And yet, oddly enough, reading it didn’t throw me into a fit of depression or melancholy. The characters showed me strength in their insanity; perseverance in their lust for revenge.
Towards the end of the book is a paragraph that perhaps will give you a small peek into what you might find by reading this book:
I sometimes think that there is a link between the decline in humanity and the increase in prosperity and comfort. Prosperity and comfort are what people seek, but the costs to character are often terrifying.
The 1988 film, also called Red Sorghum, was directed by Zhang Yimou.