On Mo Yan´s Life and Death are Wearing me Out

Beijing resident Mò Yán (莫言) completed this epic doozie in 43 days. He is not only one of the most popular contemporary writers in China but the one his fellow countrymen pirate-copy the most, too. I love his name, which means “don’t speak” in Mandarin. His tales are fluid and bear a playful lightness while they render profound quandaries.

The 540 pages deliver the tale of Ximen Nao (which translates to West Gate Riot), a former landlord, who is executed by his own village amigos at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution. Once being tried and fried in hell, he finds himself back on Earth in six different animal forms and witnesses the vicissitudes of his family and environment in the flow of time.

Without spoiling the stories of all of his reincarnations, let me just say I felt, literally, grateful for Sir Mo to gladden quite a number of evening readings of mine. Particularly when, in the shape of a donkey, our chap gets to experience both his human and animal instincts evolve all of a sudden, as he simultaneously falls in love with lady jenny and reminisce at the sight of his wife whom he sees every day before and after ploughing land duty.

While he is forced to silently watch the hardship all his folks are facing, we get an insight of some identity crisis and the coming of age of a donkey hitting puberty. And all this is gingered up with a middle-aged dead man’s journey through bitter-sweet memory flashes. Though at on point he contemplates then attempts to reconnect with his human wife by scoring (biting) a disastrous donkey kiss, having only wound her he soon resumes to plan B and conquers Miss Donkey instead, whom he heroically rescues from a wolf attack.

Towards the end of his life as an ass, following the loss of a hoof in an accident and before he gets eaten up by the hungry crowds of Mao’s famine, he becomes a sorry little moke with a dog’s loyalty in him. Gathering all his strength to help his master tend to their land, who make him an artificial shoe so that he can continue to work. A master who happened to be his adopted son in his human life and who, soon after his death, married his beloved wife. In a very natural, simple way, they develop a lifelong friendship and mutual respect for each other. How loyal our burrito becomes to his master, like a subdued servant to someone to whom he used to be the adopted father and master in his previous, human, life, is an unusual yet gripping allegory of pure, filial piety and the guanxi that reads as a tribute to the most ancient Chinese archetypes and gently lays Mo Yan’s modern story on ancient grounds. Overall, I think that Mo Yan’s combo of magic realism and the Maoist reality captures such a cosmic ambience that many eras and cultures can identify with.

 “The fertilizer had to be taken out into the fields, so hard work was called for; I pulled with all my might to make the job easier on him. But I hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps when I left the shoe my mistress made stuck in the dirt. When the exposed stump hit the ground like a club, the terrible pain pushed my sweat glands to the limit. Hee-haw, hee-haw – It’s killing me! I’m worse than useless, Master. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the blue side of his face and his bulging eyes, and I was determined to help him pull the cart into the field, even if I had to crawl, in part to repay his kindness, in part as payback for all the smug looks, and in part to create a model for all those little bastards. Owing to the loss of balance, I had to bend over, until my knee touched the ground. Ah, that hurt a lot less than touching it with the stump and made it easier to pull. So, I went down on both knees, in full kneel, and, pulling with my all might, managed to get the cart moving again. The shaft pressed so hard against my throat, I had trouble breathing, I knew how awkward I must have looked, certainly worthy of ridicule. But let them laugh, all of them, as long as I could help my master move the cart to where he wanted it to go. That would spell victory, the glory!

After he’d unloaded the fertilizer, my master came up and wrapped his arm around my head. He was sobbing so hard he could barely get the words out:

‘Blackie…such a good donkey…’

After taking out his pipe and filling it, he lit up and took a deep drag. Then he held the stem up to my mouth:

‘Take a puff, Blackie,’ he said. ‘You won’t feel quite so exhausted.’

After following him for so many years, I’d gotten hooked on tobacco. I took a deep drag and blew streams of smoke out of my nostrils.” (pp 103)

Life and Death are Wearing me Out. Arcade Publishing, New York. 2006.

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