Article by Malcolm Aquino
Hailing from Shandong Province, Mo Yan is one of China’s foremost modern authors. Winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing, he is the first Chinese writer to win the award. Mo Yan has written 11 novels.
The reign of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution was one of the most contentious times in Chinese, and even world history. The situation was complex, and as a foreigner who comes from a Western democratic nation, this period of time is often taught as yet another failure of Communism and reason enough to vilify Mao’s cult of personality and the Communist Party. However, things are never so black and white. Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out takes a deep dive into the psyche of Chinese citizens during the time and how change and revolution were thrust upon them and how they reacted.
The novel begins with a common scene. Ximen Nao, a rich but benevolent landowner finds himself at the head of an angry mob of Communist sympathizers. Accusations are thrown, tempers flare, and the scene ends with Ximen Nao being shot in the head. Cut to two years later, Nao has been tortured by King Yama, king of the Underworld, for his crimes. Ximen Nao refuses to admit guilt, saying he was killed out of jealousy and madness. King Yama, unsatisfied, decides to resurrect Nao as a donkey in Nao’s old village of Gaomi Township to teach him lessons.
Ximen Nao, stubborn as hell before the donkey body, has to be resurrected several more times, including as a pig, dog, ox, monkey, and eventually a baby. Through each resurrection, he witnesses different periods of time in his village, spanning about 50 years. He sees old friends and family live and die, his children grow up without a father, and his home withstand rapid change. He, like the reader, can do nothing but observe. That is not to say that he is inactive, as he has adventures of his own and directly affects all of the biggest historical events of Gaomi. Nao also has to struggle with keeping his identity in tact, as life as an animal begins to take over his mind. He constantly fights with his human self who can reason, and his primal animal side that only lives off of instinct and has no attachments.
The novel is the Chinese A Thousand Years of Solitude, so if you’re a fan of magical realism or the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’re in for a good one. Mo Yan’s cutting humor is as present as ever, as is the love of metafiction. However, this novel is not satire, but a heartfelt look at what revolution is and what happens after the revolution is over and won. Yan is not critical of the Communist Party or Mao, but instead critical of the fervent idealism and corruption of ideals in the name of power and wealth. He goes after the people on the ground. The ones who were selling people out who loved and trusted them for arbitrary rewards and titles. The novel can get quite heartbreaking, and making Nao a helpless animal accentuates the tension and frustration for the reader. The blending of traditional Chinese astrological and mythology as a background for the modernization of China is a clever tool to show some of the massive gaps Chinese have had to leap to move forward without losing themselves completely.
No novel is perfect, however, and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out is far from perfect. The book begins to drag during the middle, with lots of buildup and not much payoff. Mo Yan also goes a little crazy with the self reference and fourth wall breaking. I am a fan of metafiction, but when you are referencing one of your other works every few chapters, it gets a little less metafiction and more shameless self promotion. In Yan’s defense, this novel is clearly based on real events, as he becomes an important part of the story in later parts of the novel.
The different resurrections didn’t feel balanced. Some would be hundreds of pages, while others were two chapters and over before anything really happens. Another critique is the sheer number of characters. It can be difficult to try and remember who’s who and why they’re important. Luckily, the main characters are constants, so the plot is easy to follow.
Mao and the Cultural Revolution were no laughing matter, so Mo Yan gets a bit more serious this time around, but the sarcasm and cutting commentary are still present. The novel is dense, so a casual beach read this book is not. If you like sprawling narrative over long periods with lots of characters, read this book. If you like laughing at terrible things, read this book. If you want a nuanced look at China in the last 50 years, read this book. If you don’t want any of those things, don’t read this book. You can find Life and Death are Wearing Me Out at Zhong Lou bookstore and Qujiang bookstore.
Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.