Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" by Mo Yan

Just like Mo Yan’s other 500 plus page novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out doesn’t suffer from a bad or misleading title, but it suffers from being too humorous and jokey in the face of what the novel expresses and sheds light on. But despite the title, this is just as good, maybe even better than Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and is for sure the single best book on reincarnation that I have ever read. While Mo Yan does seem to be a primarily political writer, as evidenced by the time periods in this novel and the other aforementioned one, but he is able to safely, and skillfully walk the balance between searing criticisms of his homeland’s (China) brutal history, and be epic journeys about small people in tiny places. This novel can be brutal sometimes, with brutal deaths of key characters occurring almost at random, and life being treated like a commodity for those who have power and those who do not. But throughout all of the heinous actions perpetrated by the state on the individual, Mo Yan always maintains a very dark sense of humor, so dark sometimes that it may be hard for the reader to see it, but it is there if you approach the story with an open mind, and open heart. The plot is very complex, but I will try my best to sum it up. It begins in hell, with Lord Yama, king of the Underworld, torturing a former landowner named Ximen Nao, who was executed in 1950 after Mao Zedong’s Land Reform Movement gave more power to the peasant class, who revolted and killed Nao, despite him having a good and giving heart. After being tortured, which included being fried alive, which is the worst thing that can happen to a soul in the Underworld, Nao refuses to confess to any wrongdoing. In frustration, Lord Yama sends him back up to earth, but reincarnated as a donkey, which just so happens to belong to Lan Lian, or Blue Face because of his birthmark, the assistant to Nao when he was alive who has now taken over his farm land, remaining the only independent farmer in China, as gossip would go, and married to one of his concubines, Yingchun. This book, like Big Breasts and Wide Hips is full of surprises that I won’t dare spoil, but they include the many incarnations of Ximen Nao over the course of 50 years. It is a little less like John Irving than Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and is more like a harsher Murakami novel in the way it balances out the absurd with the harsh realties of Chines life under Socialist rule. The book is challenging, but it does come with a character list, although incomplete, at the beginning of the novel that makes the reading of it a bit easier. This is one crazy ride from an unlikely winner of the Nobel Prize, and I hope in winning it, Mo Yan becomes a bigger name in the Western Hemisphere.

Rating: 5/5

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