Last Wednesday after the morning’s classes I stopped by one of the campus newsagents on the way to lunch, as is my habit. I was quite presently surprised to see a pile of Mo Yan’s books on the table and had a look through them. None that I’d heard of, so I picked the one that struck me as most immediately appealing. That happened to be 《牛》 it doesn’t appear on Paper Republic’s list of Mo Yan’s works, for whatever reason, nor can I see it in Paper Republic’s list of books, but it is listed under ‘novellas’ in the list of works on Baidu Baike’s article on Mo Yan – although the link takes you to an article on bovines rather than an article about the novella. So I guess it’s up to me to give 《牛》 a temporary English name to tide us over until Howard Goldblatt gets around to translating it. I think Ox will do for now – all Mo Yan tells us about the the particular species of bovine is that two are called Big and Little Luxi (鲁西) and the other is called ‘Double Ridge’ (双脊) because of his apperance. A bit of poking around reveals that 鲁西 is a kind of ox from western Shandong. He also tells us that they’re a ‘means of production’ (生产资料) – a statement that is repeated throughout the story. And Ox strikes me as being equally short and punchy as 牛.
The story is told from the point of view of a 14-year old boy, Luóhàn (罗汉, meaning ‘arhat’), caught up in the events following the castration of three bulls owned by a production team (生产队), although the narrator is looking back at events in the past, remembering and telling us this story that happened when he was 14. But he doesn’t seem terribly much older than 14 – the language feels as if he’s in his late teens or early 20s. And I think it’s that language that’s the key – it’s earthy in that it is firmly rooted in the people of the production team and the few officials of the commune they deal with. And it’s narrated with a directness that grabbed me right from the first sentence. The book opens thusly:
I was a youth then.
I was the naugtiest, most trouble-making youth in the village then.
I was also the most irritating youth in the village then.
And the story proceeds with that same simple, direct honesty. We’re sucked so much into the narrator’s world that it’s a surprise to see a helicopter mentioned in the final chapter, but no surprise to see a motorbike described as the fastest thing they’d ever seen*.
As for That Question, based on simply this novella, I’m going to have to agree with Brendan. Through Luóhàn’s 14-year old trouble-makers eyes, as remembered by an older self, we see his uncle, the production team chief,Grandpa Du, the old man in charge of the production team’s cattle and Old Dong, the commune vet all trying to manipulate each other into doing what they want while maintaining their own image of squeaky socialistic cleanliness, as defined by the dictates of the Cultural Revolution. And as it turns out, the commune officials they’re so terrified of aren’t any better, but are just as much out to pursue their own interests through the chaotic system of the time as the lowly production team members. Nobody comes out of this story looking all angelic.
Chapter 12 started with what was for me a good laugh – partly through sudden similarity with personal circumstance, but mostly because it was quite a pleasingly awful twist for the fates of some who should’ve known better. ‘Pleasingly awful’ – yes, the black humour of this book is most enjoyable.
In short: Read this.
And so I would like to thank the Nobel literature committee and my campus newstand for finally spurring me to read Mo Yan.
*Chapter 12 reveals the events of the story as having taken place at the end of April, 1970, which would make Luóhàn roughly the same age as Mo Yan himself. Luóhàn and his Pockmarked Uncle, the production team chief, are surnamed 管 (Guǎn), which just happens to be Mo Yan’s surname. I would be surprised if those characters in the story old enough to remember the War had never seen anything as fast as a motorbike, but I’m going to trust Mo Yan on the absence of such things in the rural Shandong of his youth.