Life and Death are Wearing Me Out: A Novel

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out - Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt I will never doubt my History teacher's taste in literature. Ever. Of course, a healthy, little dose of skepticism is of a clear need, but it's going to be optional, any time he recommends any other books to me.

Now, let's talk about Mo Yan's work.

I'll never do him justice. I doubt any man, other than Mo Yan himself, would do him justice. You can't explain this work. The resume will only scratch the surface. Any laudatory words will be uselessly thrown into the void. This is what writing is. This is real literature.

You know, when you give five stars on this site, you want to say that the book was really, really good and it's worth every hour spent on it.

This one, right here ... five stars barely covers how you come to feel about it in the end. You don't count this in hours; you count it in seconds, because every two lines, every paragraph, maybe every page, there is something that seems almost unrealistically good.

How can anyone understand humans so well? And how can anyone express it so good?

The story revolves around Ximen Nao. Being a landowner in Mao's China, he is forced to give up his estate and his belongings; afterwards, even though he did nothing to cast this upon himself, he is killed by power's orders. After a trip to Hell and not that much of a pleasant meeting with its ruler, he returns to Earth and reincarnates under different shapes. But not human, no. He doesn't get that privilege. He begins his journey as a donkey, then is killed and becomes an ox, then is killed again and becomes a pig, after which he lives through the forms of dog and monkey. In the end, he returns to a human form, as a little boy.

What makes this book so special, might you ask?

Well, besides the amazing storyline, the writing itself and the deep understanding of human emotions and thoughts, the correct representation of the bind between animal and human forms, the description of China during the Mao period, the mesmerizing setting that is represented through villages and rural backgrounds, the threats that the outer world poses for the enclave that this book is... What more do you need? I can understand, I can really understand, why this man got a Nobel Prize. I don't think it's for the books themselves, but for the way his writing expresses the truth. It has such a haunting imagery embeded into it, and it's so rich in volume, emotion, creativity, soul, that you can barely understand what is actually happening.

If you just read the resume and never read the book, you might think you didn't miss on anything. If you pick up the book, read it and then read the resume, you'll laugh, knowing how empty of substance it is and how little it explains.

There are moments, reading this, when you are spellbound into really envisioning the action that takes place. Rarely do you see writing that is so subtle and at the same time so pushy. It breaks out of the book, it's not on the page, rather it's in your head. His writing is tantalizing, it promises you things, greater things than you have ever seen and you keep turning the pages to find that unobtainble item. You want it to fool you, because you know that even if it tells you lies, it tells you the truth.

Mo Yan's representation of China during the Mao period is more competently written than a history book; in the end, in a history book you get the facts, the years, the documents and the death count at the end, so to speak. In Mo Yan's book, you see the men, the women, the children; you understand their fear, their binding, their loss; you memorize images and sounds, smells, looks; it paints a picture in your head, and that picture does that world justice. Fiction vs. facts, round one. Fiction incorporates facts, by round two. Fiction wins.

For the spoiler free review, it ends here. Rich, engrossing and sincere, this work has won me over. Thank you, dear History teacher, for giving it to me. It was worth it.

Come along, to the dark side of our spoiled, black world! Let me share some inside information that you shouldn't have! Oh, secrets...

There are scenes, once in a while, that make your mouth hang open. One, specifically, comes to mind. The savage, vicious beating and murdering of the Ximen Nao, when he was in his ox form.

Second reincarnation, he takes this healthy, powerful ox form and becomes the pride of the village. Because their orders were for everything to belong, in a chain-like manner, to the community, the army, Mao and the country, this ox had to become public property. Except his owner didn't want to, being the last individual worker who owned his own land and worked it himself. After putting enough pressure on him and his son, the ox is finally taken away from his master. But he is no normal ox. He is Ximen Nao, so inside the tough, dangerous looking head of his, there is a human mind that understands everything that's happening around him and makes judgements based on that. So, the ox decides to not yield to the soldiers. For this, he gets torture.

And it's not like anyone tortures him. It's his own son, Jinlong, who takes it up, violently loving it. Not just him, though - 6 or 7 men take wips and start to smack the ox with it. The animal doesn't flinch, there are tears streaming from his eyes, he experiences human sadness, Ximen cries inside of him, but doesn't flinch one bit. They hit him, they beat him to a pulp, they mingle his blood with dust, they mercilessly make meat out of him, and he doesn't move. He doesn't attack. He suffers. The men, ashamed of what they did, stop at one point. Jinlong, though, doesn't. He tied a cow to a rope and tied that rope to the ring inside the ox's nose. He hit the cow, and it started running, tearing the ox's nose apart. After the brutal beating and the wound inflicted upon his nose, the ox still doesn't move. Jinlong decides to lit a fire under him. So he does. He lights a fire at the rear of the ox and lets it burn its way through his flesh. The men save the rope that tied the ox from the flames, because it was public communist property, but they don't save the ox because he didn't belong to the country. How fucked up is that? Still, the ox cries and cries, but no attack comes from him. Jinlong goes mad, but somehow stops when he sees the ox lift himself up. A miracle, that such a beaten, raw piece of bleeding meat would be able to walk, but he does, and he walks next to his owner, on his little piece of land, where he worked, individually, freely, unconstricted by the system, for the whole of his life. And, next to his master, he dies, with tears streaking his animal cheeks and his body a red, crude mess. His master, Lan Lian, cries tears of blood.

Why have I brought up this scene?

It is inhuman. It is ruthless. It is indecent. It is wild, cruel, ferocious, destructive, barbaric and of a crudity rarely seen in humans.

And it is beautiful. I have read that scene maybe 12 to 14 times and I have come to love it more and more with each reading. It is flawless. The rythm is impeccable. The emotion is undeniable. It's so tense, so vigorously expressive, so descriptive, and it had such an effect on me that I literally felt miserable and sad and filthy for the simple act of being of the same species as those men.

Now, see? This writing is what I'm talking about. Raw, true. Cruel, true. Relentless, true. Over and under, true.

It makes you believe it's all true.

End of story.


I had to come back here after some time passed since I first read this book, and since I started other Mo Yan works. It was so fast, I never even saw it coming - this enslavement, this opening up. I have thoroughly succumbed to Mo Yan's genius. I give up. I will forever be in doubt to my History teacher for opening my eyes and giving me this book right here to read. Mo Yan is a master of words, and he plays with imagery and the insertion of humans into its world, unknowingly changing the reader as he takes him along his ride. And it is one hell of a ride. I love this. I would recommend Mo Yan to any reader out there, for the depth he reaches and for the surfacing he experiences.

Now I'll just keep consuming Mo Yan like I consume everything/everyone else that I love: up until I find the end of it, and then once more, and once more, and once more.. in an endless cycle of what will soon be familiarity.

UPDATE : 08.04.2014 : I can barely believe what I just found out. This whole masterpiece has been written in 42 days. I .. don't even know what to say. How? How? It's one of the most complex works I have read, compiled of detailed characters and intricate world and you're telling me it took Mo Yan 42 days to build this? I .. can't... even..