Red Sorghum: A Novel of China

Red Sorghum - Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt You can say I've developed a pretty healthy obsession with Mo Yan's writing. So healthy that I read his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (which was beautifully crafted - and long), I watched interviews of him with subtitles, I'm going to get the movie "Red Sorghum" and watch it, just because it's after this book right here, not because I particulary enjoy Chinese movies, I've started taking more interest in China's development (the whole of it, not just the last 150 years) because their ancestry fascinates me, and above all that, I think I'm ready to read his entire work. As in, right now. I'm currently working on the first half of Big Breasts and Wide Hips and loving that one too.

Plot, let's first do a little plot summary:

China. The Shandong family is a typical chinese rural family, following tradition, living the old life and not knowing of any other way to lead their existance. Their story is told in the span of three generations, since the 1920s, with a lot happening until the 1930s, and then with some more things happening up until the 1970s. The official span is 1923 through to 1976, but I was never sure which were when, because it's extremelly non-chronological (which is apparently a known trait of Mo Yan's), and you keep getting confused as to what is what and who is who. This family owned a distilery and made a type of alcohool called "sorghum wine", out of the "sorghum", which is a fodder plant, used to feed any type of livestock that might grow around. Which, also, as you might have noticed from the title of this book, grows red in the Northeast Gaomi Township. Afterwards, during the Second Sino-Japanese War (google it: I found out its span: 1937 to 1945) they were resistance fighters, trying to block the Japs' plans in their area.

The minute you start reading it, you notice the writing. If you're like me, and this isn't your first Mo Yan book, it seems almost weirdly familiar to once again drown in it. It's tense, compact, it's his typical language, even though this is his first ever published novel and the one I read was his last. It's written in first-person, which I most commonly loathe, but once again I'm proven that some geniuses people can excell at this job. His narration is extremelly fluid and doesn't ever stop on the way or decide to become less entertaining - it is a constant voice that you keep listening to throughout his book and it guides you through the maze that is "Red Sorghum".

Speaking about "Red Sorghum" the first half, it's everywhere. On every page. At every corner. The rural background is made of it. It's the area's God. It almost seems like this book's Universe is formed of only it, and it's present wherever things happen: good things, tragedies, deaths, marriages, history - the sorghum is there to supervise the people. Rarely do you see such a natural element take an important role in the story, but then comes Mo Yan, who makes almost a character out of this fodder plant and gives it the all-knowing, all-seeing, a little menacing role. After a while, you get jaded and cloyed with it, but it nonetheless represents a powerfull image in the book.

About image - the scenery is once again flawless. Black earth, red sorghum, milky water, it all adds up to a story background that sometimes surpasses the story itself and makes it even more rich when it doesn't, as it gives soul to not only the people, but the places it talks about. I kept being mesmerized at how much of Mo Yan's work is based on his observation of the world around him and how detailed the reproduction of that world on paper is. Clearly, one of his best traits as a writer is the ability to ignite in his reader's mind the blazing image of something, of anything - his power to put his own view into his reader's eyes. He was born to be a writer, if only for that.

Once again, his writing is also able to take on a very dark shape and tear the fictional world's seams apart. Twenty-something pages in, you get a scene in which a couple of horses are killed - that's brutal. And then, as a bonus, just a few pages later, you get the skinning of Luohan, at the orderd of the Japanese soldiers. That skinning is a bloody, messy job and one of the moments I realized Mo Yan really knows what he's talking about. I pay a lot of attention to details, and because I read a lot of thriller-themed books and lot of blood and gore stuff, I'm able to really envision even the cruelest details of a killing scene. The detail that really made it for me in here was that after Luohan gets the skin peeled off of his face, it's described as if he has little beads of blood on the surface of his raw meat, which is absolutely true - when you skin something, and you skin them really well, like hunters do, blood doesn't pour out and cover everything, rather it trickles and forms little drops. So, it's either that Mo Yan really did see a real man's skinning, or he did his research. Thumbs up for that! Filled to the tops with this kind of visceral imagery, the book is a roller-coaster, where you never know if you should expect a hanging or a bouquet of flowers. No, seriously.

Because I read it in Romanian, I had to corelate between my version and an English version if I wanted quotes; after about three or four times I did that, I got annoyed by having to read half a page of one of them and half of the other to find out if I was looking at the same thing. My favorite, out of the ones I picked, remains - "Surrounded by progress, I feel a nagging sense of our species regression."

Why it got five stars? First of all, I still like "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" much more than this one, but they're both spectacular works and they make such a harsh introduction for the reader in the mind of someone who experienced things us whites have probably never gone through. It's bewildering, having to take all of the information in, but if you understand where Mo Yan is getting at, you are in for an awesome thrill. This book is, on a much higher level than almost everything else published between the 80s and now, everything a reader wants: it's a thriller, it's a phylosophical study, it's a romance book, it's enriched with the dance between life and death, between their meanings, it's a history book, a political essay and also a light pat on the shoulder, letting you know just how good you'll never, ever get to be.

I'll now very happily go and continue on with "Big Breasts and Wide Hips", after which I'll probably start "The Garlic Ballads". I have in no way, not even illegally, happened to get my hands on some 6 works of Mo Yan's from the mighty Internet. I can't be blamed for developing an obsession. That's my History teacher's fault.

The movie "Red Sorghum" came out in 1987, the same year as the book, and got a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. I'll watch it, then I'll report back. Over.