I first learnt about Mo Yan / 莫言 when I was browsing books in an Eslite bookstore in Taipei. There was an entire shelf featuring his works that had been translated into English. Many of these books had “Winner of 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature” printed on the cover, lest this recognition goes unnoticed.

Having made a note of him on the list of books/authors on my phone, I eventually read up on Mo Yan when I was back in Brussels. The first novel of his that I read was The Garlic Ballads / 天堂蒜薑之歌, which traces the revolt by peasants of Paradise Country against the Chinese Communist Party following a disastrous campaign to cultivate only garlic.

More information: Excerpt and reviews in The New York Times and The Independent.Café Belga - Garlic balladsThis was then followed by a brick of a book, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out / 生死疲劳, which I spent many hours reading during hot afternoons and warm nights in Istanbul. The story is narrated by Ximen Nao and Lan Lian, his adopted son. After he was wrongfully executed, the former returns to his family home, first as a donkey, then an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, before finally resuming human form, with each reincarnation featuring incredulous and/or hilarious incidents. Mo Yan himself appears in this long narrative as a crafty writer who’s a family friend. 

More information: Excerpt and reviews in The New York Times and Washington Post.Mo Yan - Life & Death are wearing me out01k64Today, I finished reading Big Breasts and Wide Hips / 丰乳肥臀. The story revolves around the Shangguan family, led by Shangguan Lu, an extraordinary woman with bound feet and gumption to survive against all odds as she raises her nine children and their grandchildren during turbulent times. The family’s woes and triumphs are seen through the eyes of Shangguan Jintong, her only son who has a peculiar fixation on breasts. 

More information: Reviews in Washington Post and The New YorkerMo Yan - Big breasts & wide hips01k64Mo Yan is a masterful storyteller, mixing fiction with historical events in 20th century China together with a generous dose of satire. His heady tales latch firmly onto the reader’s imagination from the onset and are brought to life by vivid details in the interchanging narratives and flashbacks.

That said, each time I would start enthusiastically, enraptured even, but my attention would start faltering mid-way and I struggled to finish the books. I find these stories to be a little longwinded with the plot dragged on for too long, only to end off abruptly under hurried and bizarre circumstances, as though Mo Yan realises after writing for several hundred pages that the storyline was going nowhere!

Would I recommend his books? Yes. Because his stories are fascinating and deftly weaves fiction with reality. I just don’t think that I’ll be reading a fourth novel by him anytime soon.

6 replies on “Reading Mo Yan 莫言

  1. Thank you for sharing this – I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to start reading Mo Yan’s work, but I feel like there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t now. 🙂

  2. I saw a Mo Yan title at the library just the other day, it was Big Breasts and Wide Hips (so naturally I picked it up), it didn’t grab me as something I wanted to read but Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out sounds interesting. Will pick it up next time I’m there. Cheers!

    You ever get around to Dreaming Annapurna?

    1. Talking about libraries, I don’t know why I’ve not thought of borrowing books in Brussels… that would resolve my problem of limited bookshelf space!

      I didn’t get to go to Waterstones the last time I was in London, even though it was just opposite from the hotel I was in, as I was swamped with work : ( hopefully the next time(s) when I’m back in London!

  3. How are the English translations? I’ve read a few English translations of Japanese authors, and from what I understand there are parts of the book that get heavily lost in translation. Must be even harder for Chinese…

    1. I think they are fine, though the names are always a little confusing as they would have been easier to distinguish in Chinese. It’s a little hard to say if the English rendition of Mo Yan’s books is a good representation as he seems to have a peculiar writing style and I’ve not read his works in Chinese.

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