Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, is the nome de plume of Guan Moye- the name “Mo Yan” literally means “Don’t Speak.” Apparently, Guan  Moye was so talkative as a child that his mother repeatedly commanded, “Don’t Speak.” So, when Guan Moye decided to become a writer, he adopted Mo Yan as his nome de plume.

It says much about today’s China when Mo Yan explains why he decided to become a writer. He was once told by a student sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution that writers make a lot of money, so he decided to put his gift of the gab to a profitable use. That is how Mo Yan became one of China’s most loved living writer.

The collection of stories in the book under review, Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh, contains 7 of the writer’s stories written over several decades.

The title story is about Ding Shikou, a worker who has been fired from his job just a week before his retirement. In the new capitalist China where making money by hook or crook is as acceptable as for a worker to be laid off close to retirement, Ding Shikou finds opportunites to make money in an abandoned bus  hidden among the vegetation near a beach resort. Observing that young couples often do not have enough privacy at the beach, he starts to rent out the bus after furnishing it with a bed and providing cold drinks to couples- young and not so young. Soon, he has a roaring business. Towards the end of the story, his conscience comes back to gnaw at him. This is by far the best story in the collection, marked by touches of magical realism.

The second story “Man and Beast” is about the narrator’s grandfather who had been left behind on a Japanese island and where he hid for a number of years after the war ended. Living almost like the beasts with whom he shared he the forests, he one day chances upon a Japanese woman and rapes her, justifying the act as a retribution for the rapes of Chinese women by the invading Japanese soldiers in a veiled reference to the rape of Nanking. The irony of the tales that nations and people tell themselves comes out well at the end of the story:

Granddad never actually had intercourse with that woman, so the furry baby described in Japanese historical materials, that the one she eventually bore, is not related to him. But even having a young uncle who is half Japanese and has a body covered with hair would be no disgrace to our family, and could, in fact be considered our glory. One must honour the truth”

“Soaring” is about a young girl who cannot escape a marriage that she has been forced into at the behest of her mother. This is another touching story though somewhat marred by the use of fable narrative.

In “Iron Child” a young boy growing up in the years of the Cultural Revolution is so driven by persistent hunger that he begins to eat iron. The story is inspired by Mo Yan’s own experiences during those years.

“The Cure” is about a bizarre cure that the village doctor prescribes for the failing eyes of the narrator’s aged mother- the gall bladder of a human being. A cannibalistic tale, it brings out the horror of the years of the Cultural Revolution like the previous story “Iron Child”.

“Love Story “ is a about a young urban girl sent to the village during the Cultural Revolution, where she falls in love with a younger local boy who is just experiencing the onset of adolescent love and physical desire.

“Shen Garden” is the story about a man who has forgotten about his former love. When the woman, whom he had met in a small town a long time ago, visits him and tries to rekindle their love. She finds that the man, who is apparently now doing well for himself in Beijing, no longer reciprocates her feelings. Mo Yan sums up the story in his preface in the following manner:

I want to show here is how a middle aged man turns his back on the love of an earlier time and eventually compromises with reality. In today’s society, many Chinese men who have achieved success, even fame, live hypocritical lives. Deep down, there is little more than a pile of ruins.

“Abandoned Child” is about a baby girl child who has been abandoned and is rescued by the narrator. The story recounts the reactions of the narrator’s family to his bringing home an orphan girl- everyone else wishes that it had been a boy instead. The apathy extends to the local officials when the narrator tries to get the authorities take the baby to a state institution. There is a propagandist twist to the story at the end, which makes the story somewhat weak.

Like the early Soviet writers like Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Bulgakov, among others, Mo Yan uses satire, wit and elements of what has come to be called “magical realism” to chronicle the life of ordinary men and women in post- Revolution China. Ironically, communist countries that upheld social realism as the highest form of aesthetic expression find their best writers turning to surrealism to write about life of ordinary people in those countries.

It is tempting to see Mo Yan as something of a cross between Maxim Gorky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even more tempting is to compare him with Andrey Platonov, except that while Platonov died working as a window cleaner during Stalin’s regime, Mo Yan is evidently doing well as a prized possession of the Communist Party of China.

Mo Yan’s  talkative nature pointed to by his mother, overflows into his writing. His prose is marked by its free flowing alacrity and a gifted imagination. Not having as yet read a complete novel by him, I can’t comment on whether his writing is consistently great, but this collection is certainly a wonderful introduction to the latest Nobel Laureate in Literature, the first ever for a Chinese writer.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

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