Simple, plod-along depiction of rural life from 1949 to today.
552 pages, ★★★★ on an e-reader; possibly five stars in hardback.
Mo Yan is famous for writing novels set in the Chinese countryside. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan describes the growth of modern rural China (post-1949) through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating landlord called Ximen Nao (闹西门).
Protagonist Ximen Nao begins the novel as a successful businessman in Gaomi Township, Shandong Province. At the start of the novel, he is tortured and killed as a “capitalist counter-revolutionary” in the 1949 revolution. The story proceeds through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating protagonist; the book’s six parts represent each of his reincarnations. Between lives, Yama, lord of the underworld, determines Ximen Nao’s fate:
- Before New China (1949): human
- New China (1949) to the Great Leap Forward (1957): donkey
- Great Leap Forward (1957) to the Cultural Revolution (1966): ox
- Cultural Revolution (1966) to the death of Chairman Mao (1976): pig
- Death of Chairman Mao (1976) to Opening Up and Reform (1992): dog
- Opening Up and Reform (1992) to the year 2000: monkey, then a child
He lives in the same village throughout these lifetimes, witnessing—sometimes interacting with—his wife, children and friends from when he was a human.
Two aspects of this book were most interesting. First, there’s how China changed suddenly in 1949, not just politically (into a one-party state) and economically (with the onset of Communism), but also socially: people got killed, elevated, and demoted; and romantic couples re-arranged themselves with new society. Legalising divorce resulted in a flood of second-marriages, step-parents and intertwined family trees (I drew a character map for this book, but it looks too messy to be of use!)
Second, we watch China transform from a backward agrarian society led by Chairman Mao into the BMW-driving, hair- (and skin-) bleaching society that we see today. Protagonist Ximen Nao reincarnates himself every time China reincarnates itself (1949, 1957, 1966, 1976 and 1992). Even though Life And Death is fictional, it’s believable and historically accurate, and takes the perspective of an average Chinese rural dweller. (See also Zhang Yimou’s flim, To Live, which also does this very well). Historical texts such as China Since 1949, however, are too dry for many readers, and usually focus on top-level party politics, rather than on ordinary people’s lives.
There’s humour in this book, but it’s too long to read on an e-reader. It gets just four stars from me, but someone with a hardback copy might give it five. ★★★★
- IoS paperback review: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, By Mo Yan (translated by Howard Goldblatt) (independent.co.uk)
- Mo Yan: China’s reluctant Nobel laureate (bbc.co.uk)
- Mo Yan Nobel lecture derided by China dissidents (dailystar.com.lb)
- Book: Red Sorghum (jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com)
- Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out (nytimes.com)