Long novels tend to wear out the reader, and this one was no exception. Yet I ended up reading Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. In the process, I came to not only respect Mo Yan’s talented writing, but also gained a view of China through the second half of the long 20th century. On a side note, it is quite ironical that what is a very long read, took Mo Yan just 42 days to write, that too by hand since he doesn’t use a computer.
Mo Yan’s writing is humorous as he recounts the ups and down of Chinese history–starting with the Revolution on 1st January 1950 and ending the novel on 1st January 2000. It is not only the turn of the millennium but also a time when China firmly and decisively, veered towards a capitalist future.
Mo Yan’s writing is a page turner, as he gallops through a very grim part of China’s recent history. The writing is marked by a humorous, even comical touch. The style is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Especially in the long middle, the narrative is quirky, marked by tangential diversions and exaggeration. While Garcia Marquez’s style came to be known as magical realism, I would term Mo Yan’s as “comic realism” (I couldn’t find the term on Google, so I may claim some originality for coining it!), given the humour with which the novel bustles.
The story revolves around a village landlord, Ximen Nao, who is killed during the Chinese revolution. After his death, the lord of the Nether world, Yama sends Ximen Nao back to earth, where he is subsequently reincarnated as a donkey, an ox a pig, a dog and finally as a monkey. Their lives correspond to the successive phases of Chinese history, spanning over half a century. Through these reincarnated lives Ximen Nao watches with trepidation the death of his wife, his concubines and the birth and lives of the children that he had with the latter. The action is limited by and large to the Ximen village in the Gaomi County where Mo Yan himself grew up.
The interspersing years saw the decimation of landlords, collectivization and the Great Leap Forward when millions died, followed by Mao’s death in 1976, de-collectivization and the eventual turn towards towards capitalism, starting in the 1980s and maturing in the 1990s.
This is how he describes Mao’s death:
On the ninth day of September, an event occurred that was as cataclysmic as a mountain collapsing or the earth opening up. Despite all attempts to save him, your Chairman Mao passed away. I could have, of course, have said our Chairman Mao, but I was a pig at the time, and that would have sounded disrespectful. (page 327)
Nevertheless, after Mao’s death, the pigs are finally free.
After a very long middle that meanders through the years of the Cultural Revolution, collectivization of agriculture followed by de- collectivization during the early Deng Xiaoping years, the novel explores the definitive turn towards capitalism and its ideals- of making money. The party officials, descendants of Ximen, have now gotten rich. While one of them, Jinlong continues to mouth the slogans of the early CPC, he also plans to make the Ximen village a place of leisure and relaxation for the rich.
His brother Lan Jiefang, now a county chief, is smitten by a young girl twenty years his junior- literally and metaphorically, symbolizing the emergence of the “gentrified” apparatchik. For the reader, the novel could not be more delightful than it is at this point. The dreadful middle, always a challenge for both the writer and the reader of a long novel, is now over. One wonders if it is a deliberate ruse to bore and wear out the censors.
Towards the end, the novel becomes more interesting as layers of meaning are revealed. Mo Yan himself appears in the novel, as a “crafty writer.” He has a soft corner for the Lan Jiefang, portrayed as a hero because he renounces his powerful position for his new found love. It is tricky and difficult to make out if Mo Yan is playing tricks to circumvent the censors by deliberately making a hero out of a much older man ditching his wife who supported him in his early years of struggle. This is left ambiguous, and readers must make their own judgement. I am inclined to assume that Mo Yan is playing it both ways, and by retaining the ambiguity, he is also saving his own skin.
Lan Jiefang’s taking a young girl and ditching his wife is reminiscent of Wang Lung, the protagonist in Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth doing something similar when he becomes a rich farmer. In sharp contrast to Wang Lung’s wife O-lan, Lan Jiefang’s wife Huang Hezuo refuses to accept the other woman and refuses divorce.
The novel’s end is rapid, comprising fast-moving events- Yingchun- Ximen Nao’s concubine, whose two sons are the main protagonists, dies. Her funeral is a big affair with numerous Party dignitaries attending it, the cavalcade consisting of 40 sedans. Ximen Jinlong owns up his parentage by recognizing that his father’s name was Ximen and not Lan. He is killed in a suicide attack by his former mentor and a die-hard believer in Mao’s socialism, Huang Tong.
Here is a short passage that says so much in its brevity:
People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid, in the 1990s they carefully weighed people’s words and actions, and in the 1990s they were simply evil.(page 266)
The sad fate of the brothers and other corrupt Party officials is a wonderful sleight of hand by Mo Yan to expose what the CCP officials have done since the 1990s. By showing that these deviants meet a tragic end, he can manage to remain in their good books.
Ximen Nao’s last reincarnation is that of a monkey and symbolizes that the old China is gone forever. Indeed, just like the boom-time Latin American novels that Garcia Marquez and his generation wrote have given way to the contemporary urban novel, Chinese literature too will find a new voice as China rapidly moves towards urbanization.