Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Tragicomic family saga of 20th-century China
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, published in 2006, is a historical novel by Chinese writer Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. It chronicles the lives of one Chinese family through the second half of the twentieth century, but it is far from a conventional period epic. In fact, it is likely to be one of the oddest novels you’ll ever read.

The story is told as an extended conversation between two narrators, one of whom on several occasions dies and undergoes reincarnation. Ximen Nao is a landowner in the agricultural district of Northeast Gaomi Township. He is a wealthy and respected member of the community until the Communist Revolution, when he is executed so his land can be redistributed. When the novel opens, Ximen Nao is in the underworld, being tortured by the demon minions of Lord Yama, the judge in charge of assigning reincarnations. His soul is sent back to Earth in the body of a donkey, born in the very same village where he previously resided. While a donkey, he maintains some of his human intelligence and is able to observe and interact with his descendants and former neighbors. At the same time, he also adopts the nature of a donkey, concerns himself with donkey matters, and socializes with his fellow donkeys. This cycle of reincarnation continues throughout the book, as Ximen Nao comes back successively as an ox, pig, dog, monkey, and finally as a human child who serves as one of the narrators. Admittedly, this is disorienting at first. As the novel goes on, however, Mo Yan leaves enough bread crumbs for the reader to follow the trail of what’s going on, and after a while one really appreciates this unique manner of storytelling.

As a donkey, Ximen Nao becomes the property of Lan Lian, one of his former tenant farmers, who has married Ximen Nao’s former concubine and is now raising Ximen Nao’s children. While all the farmers of Gaomi Township, under Chairman Mao’s urging, are joining the local farming cooperative, Lan Lian defiantly chooses to remain an independent farmer. As the village’s sole holdout, he (and his donkey) suffer great persecution for this decision. Though often told in a satirical manner, the novel vividly brings to life the paranoia and vindictiveness of the Cultural Revolution, when anyone accused of displaying remotely capitalist tendencies could be punished by their vigilante neighbors. The novel spans the years 1950 to 2000, so Mo Yan later gets the opportunity to apply his biting wit to China’s recent transformation towards capitalism.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is really a fascinating look at Chinese history and a fun read loaded with dark humor. The book’s one major fault is that it is just too long. Lengthiness itself is not a fault, but there is definitely some fat that could be trimmed here. The midsection, in particular, sometimes makes overly protracted digressions into the animal lives, replete with feces and sex jokes. One must admit, however, that when Mo Yan tries to be funny, he truly is funny. It is admirable the way he effortlessly weaves lowbrow profanity into his epic literary narrative. In real life, Mo Yan grew up in Gaomi, and he playfully inserts himself as a supporting character in the book, a troublemaking problem child who grows up to be an overrated writer.

For all its laughs, however, the overall arc of the novel is ultimately tragic, as we watch members of the family and community meet with disappointment, dishonor, and death. The book contains some profoundly moving scenes of emotional power that belie its predominantly satirical bent. Together the light and the dark, the high and the low, the comedy and the tragedy, all add up to a truly memorable reading experience.
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