An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan

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. Continue reading “An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan”

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Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

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.

Continue reading “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan”

Nikolai Gogol

1st April seems to be an appropriate date to celebrate the 200th birth centenary of one of the great satirists of all times, Nikolai Gogol. Human nature, that of con men included, hasn’t changed much since his days.

Gogol’s prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of the defects of human character, Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature. (more)

Watch the entire film based on Gogol’s The Inspector General starring Danny Kaye (1949). Here is the first part:

Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture

This year’s Nobel laureate Le Clézio gives an impassioned Nobel Prize lecture, in a sense taking off from where Doris Lessing had left it last year. He quotes a passage from Stig Dagerman that influenced him as a writer and touches on many themes including a call for re- claiming the word “globalization” as well as for reclaiming a place for literature in face of the audio and visual media. Among others, he dedicates his lecture to the Mauritian Hindi writer Abhimanyu Unnuth, Qurratulain Hyder (for Aag Ka Darya) and the Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo.

A few excerpts from the lecture: (link via Literary Saloon)

How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.” (from Stig Dagerman’s The Writer and Consciousness)


Continue reading “Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture”

Wrong Heaven by Rabindranath Tagore

Continued from here:

That day, too, the workless man stood on a side.

The girl asked, “What do you want?”

He said, “I want more work from you.”

“What work shall I give you?”

“If you agree, I will make a ribbon for your plait by knitting together colourful threads.”

“What would that do?”

“Nothing at all.”

A ribbon of many different colours was made. Ever since, it takes the girl a long time to tie her hair into a plait. Chores are left undone, time passes by.

4

On the other hand, with time, big gaps started appearing in the working people’s heaven. Tears and songs filled those gaps.

The heavenly elders became deeply concerned. A meeting was called. They said, “Such a thing has never happened in the history of this place.”

The heavenly messenger came and admitted his mistake. He said, “I have brought a wrong man to the wrong heaven.”

The wrong man was brought to the meeting. His coloured headgear and waistband were enough to tell everyone that a grave mistake had been committed.

The chairman said to him, “You will have to return to earth.”

He tucked his bag of colours and brushes to his waist and with a sigh of relief said, “Off I go then.”

The girl came and said, “I will go too.”

The elderly chairman became a little abstracted. This was the first time he had witnessed something that had no meaning at all.

THE END

Image source: http://threadsofatattinggoddess.blogspot.com/

(Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

Wrong Heaven by Rabindranath Tagore

The man was totally out of work.

He had no occupation, just many different hobbies.

He would stuff mud inside small wooden cubes and decorate those with little shells. From a distance, those appeared as a haphazard painting with a bunch of birds within them; or a patchy field with cattle grazing on it; or undulating hills, out of which a waterfall or a trodden path peeked out.

There was no end to the chastisement he received from his family members. At times, he vowed to drop all this madness, but the madness never deserted him.

2

There are some boys who are lax with studies the whole year, but still pass the exam for no reason. The same happened with this man.

His entire life was spent without doing anything, yet after his death, he heard he had been approved to ascend to heaven.

But even on the way to heaven, destiny doesn’t forsake a man. The messengers put a wrong sign on him and took him to the working people’s heaven.

This heaven has everything except leisure time.

The men here say, “Where’s the time to breathe?” And women say, “I am going, dear, there’s a lot of work to do.” Everyone says, “Time is valuable.” Nobody says, “Time is priceless.” They all lament by saying, “We can’t take it anymore.” This makes them very happy. The music here plays to the refrain of the grievance “Oh, I am so tired!”

This man doesn’t find any space, he can’t fit in. On the road, as he walks absent-minded, he blocks the path of busy people. Whenever he he tries to rest by spreading his sheet at some spot, he learns seeds have been planted at that very place for cultivating crops. He has to always get up and move.

3

Every day, a busy girl comes to the source of the heaven to fetch water.

She darts through the path like the quick gat of a sitar.

She has tied her hair into a hurried rough knot. Even so, a few restless strands of hair bend down her forehead to get a peek at the black stars of her eyes.
The heavenly unoccupied man was standing on one side, still as Tamal tree standing beside a sprightly waterfall.

Just like a princess feels sorry for a beggar passing by her window, the girl felt sorry for this man.
“Aha, so you don’t have any work to do?”

Letting out a sigh, the workless man said, “There’s no time to work.”

The girl couldn’t understand any of his words. She said, “Do you want to share some of my work?”

The unemployed man said, “I am standing here only to share your work.”

“What work will you take?”

“If you can give me one of those earthen pots you bring to carry water…”

“What will you do with the pot? Will you fetch water?”

“Nah, I will paint on it.”

Irritated, the girl says, “I don’t have time, I am going.”

But how could a working person beat a workless one? Every day, they meet at the waterfront, and every day, the man makes the same request, “Just give me one of your pots, I will paint on it.”

Finally, the girl accepts defeat and hands him a pot.

The man began encircling the pot with layers of different hues and strokes.

When it was done, the girl lifted the pot and looked at it from all sides. With a raised eyebrow she asked, “What’s the meaning of this?”

The workless man said, “It has no meaning.”

The girl returned home with the pot. Hiding from others’ glances, she viewed it by moving it at different angles and shades of light. At night, she would get up from her bed to light the lamp and look at the painting. At her age, this was the first time she had seen something that had no meaning.

The next day, when she came to the waterfront, her brisk feet seemed to have hit a pause. As if while walking, the feet were carelessly thinking of something–something that had no meaning.

…To be continued

(Short Story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)