Last years ( 2012) Nobel Laureate Mo Yan goes back to his childhood days in the province, to the days of poverty and hunger the days of cultural revolution t the early days of one family one child policy, in this collection of carefully chosen eight short stories. 1960s , Mo Yan says, is "one of China's most bizarre period. On one hand, those years saw the country in the grip of economic stagnation and individual deprivation. The people struggled to keep death from their door, with little to eat and rags for clothes ; on the other hand, it was a time for intense political passion". He talked about people surviving by eating coal. "The more I ate, the better the stuff tasted, until it seemed absolutely delicious". These collection of stories are reflective of the time which Mo Yan experienced as a young boy.
The title story talked about a factory worker laid off from job, barely a month before his retirement. Known for his exemplary work, a role model to the rest, even he could not survive the axe, as the bad economic situation, caused the authorities to shut down the factory. All the sweet words that flew and the promises that were given, as Ding Shikou soon to find out, had no meaning. Forced to find a way to live, Shikou takes the help of his friend to transform a abandoned chassis of a bus into some thing called a 'lover's cottage', which he rents out on a fee to young lovers seeking privacy and seclusion. While it gave him economic freedom, as the business grew to greater heights during the 'season', Shikou looses his conscience and self esteem, resulting in his hallucinatory visions of 'visitors' to his cottage.
Man and the beast, reflect upon the plight of a soldier who fought Japanese and was captured and taken as prisoner to Japan. Visiting the island of Hokkaido, the nameless narrator, recounts the story of his grand father and his exploits in the lush valleys and hills adjoining the Sapporo Sea. Remembering his grand dad's words of his time in Japan, the heroic story of resistance of his grand mother, his uncles and aunts against the enemy, the ten years of solitary life in the mountains before his return to China and the accusation of his rape of a Japanese woman as per the police records ( grand father never actually had intercourse with that women, so the furry baby described in Japanese historical materials, is not related to him. But even having a young uncle who is half Japanese would be no disgrace to our family, and could in fact considered our glory, says the narrator) the grand son tries to get the records right and restore the glory of his family. "One must honour the Truth".
Soaring, is a fantastic story with a touch of magical realism. Forty year old, badly pockmarked Hong Xi marries to a beautiful YanYan, in exchange for his sister to Yanyan's brother, a mute. However, the marriage wasn't one he hoped for, as the bride took off from his house and jumped and flew over the village, from one tree to the other, free like a bird to escape the marriage, refusing to come down despite the plea from him and the villagers, until she was brought down by the village policeman's rifle. Iron Child is an ironical story about a young boy living by eating pieces of iron, during the "great leap forward" campaign, in possible satire on over industrialisation while the country is in famine. "Cure" on the other hand is too visually compelling, forced to witness the mass execution by the authorities, a young boy and his father waits below the bridge for falling bodies to extract the 'gall' from the corpse as a cure for his ailing grand mother. 'Love story', about a city educated young girl forced to labour at the farm collectives, having a affair with a younger boy. "Abandoned Child" is about female infanticide, a larger social and political issue due to the strict one family one son policy. A story relevant in the present day India ( especially Haryana and Punjab and to a lesser extend Tamil Nadu), trying to get the attention of the people to one of the most 'disturbing' trends in the modern era. Restricted to having one child per family, young people abandon or murder new born babies, if they are born with any defects or if they are girls ( preference to male child).
'Shen Garden' is one of the story which stand out and is my pick from this collection. The most recent story of the book, this is a poignant account of a middle aged couple ( either divorced or separated for a long time), coming to terms with their life's dreams and compromises. Story starts with two middle aged man and woman, sitting in the bakery, having referential, trivial one sided conversations. We can gather that they are not together and the relation is already cracked. Both will move their own way in the evening ( a reference of an eight 'O clock train) not likely to meet again. Its all of a sudden she demands "I'd like to visit Shen Garden". Shen Garden might be the symbolic of their good times. Its a place where they wish to be together. As we understand from his expression, Shen Garden is not in Beijing, but in Zheijiang province . Nonetheless, they set out for the garden, the Yuanming garden in Beijing.
'This isn't my Shen Garden' she said. "You're wrong, this is your Shen Garden". He felt like a stage performer. In a tone of voice pregnant with meaning, he added, 'Of course, it's my Shen Garden too. It's our Shen Garden."
The royal gardens of China are an attraction by themselves. Having visited many, I can vouch for their effect and impact on the visitors. A place of calmness and serenity among the hubbubs of the crowded city life, the rich vegetation and green surroundings. When they entered the garden it was raining and the place was deserted. The rain lashed on them and their life. The weather is changing, it rained out and the rainbow is in the horizon, swinging the mood of the couple. She was hopping around like a girl and shouting and the joy was infectious. Mo Yan writes,
"Without being aware of it, they had drawn close together, as they gazed intimately into each other's eyes. No evasions or sidesteps, no hesitation or wavering; first their hands joined naturally, and then they fell just as naturally into each other's arms. They kissed."
Mo Yan derives the characters and his subject from his childhood days( except may be Shen Garden). The intense fragrance of the province in the sixties is visible in each of the tale. The hardship, the ability to look at them and laugh ( as the title story reminds us) and the resilience, which are characteristics of the people comes out strongly through these stories. Its a clever mix, of some hard hitting social issues , few fantastical stories, a fabulous love story. Mo Yan, writes beautifully and they are rich in imagery and deep in content. Even a preachy story like 'abandoned child' has the elements of a good story telling. The translation is smooth and the selection is well thought out. May not be the best of Mo Yan, but are very important and reflective of the resources of this writer , the world recognised through the Nobel Prize.
Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh(2001 )
Mo Yan ( translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt in 2001)
New internationalist, NY Times