Monday, August 31, 2015
Review: "Frog" by Mo Yan
A writer like Mo Yan is an odd choice for a Nobel Prize in this day and age. He does have very noticeable and heartfelt social and culture themes throughout his work, but for me, that pales in comparison to his many entertaining qualities, sharing more in common with western writers than his Asian countrymen (it should also be noted that his win in 2012 was met with controversy, and since he won, the writers awarded have been popular, if moderately so, here in the Western world). Reading through his longest books, Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (two titles that belie the broad, sweeping themes in each), you get a feeling of what it’s like not only to live in a place like modern China, but really any place where the quality of human life is negotiable. That same feeling imbues Frog, the latest book by Mo Yan to be translated into English. It is a bit a shorter, and not nearly as grand as the two books I previously mentioned, but it shares Yan’s bleak worldview, and I found it to be one of his funniest books. It takes the harrowing lives of its characters, putting them through the wringer with them having little to show for it by the end, but never failing to perfectly balance a brutal, tuck your head between your knees tragedy with a kind of dark, esoteric awe-shucks sense of humor that might not be refreshing, but never fails to give the reader belly laughs. At the center of this novel are Gugu, or Wan Xin, a respected midwife in a rural chines community with a past steeped in rebellion and am almost mystical gift when it comes to childbirth, having a hand in the birth of almost everyone in the village, including her nephew, Wan Zu, or Tadpole, the narrator of the story. But after the enforcement of Mao Zedong’s One-Child Policy, and an unhappy ending for one of Gugu’s love affairs, she strictly enforces the Chairman’s policy, becoming a reviled villain in the community she was once a hero, having a hand in brutal incidents whose consequences not only affect her and her family, but everyone in Tadpole’s generation as well. Some of the tragedy here is a little hard to swallow for some, with two scenes involving the death of female characters being heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure. But this book treats events in a weirdly kind-hearted manner, reminding me of the books of John Irving in its joyous validation of even the most horrid of lives, as one unnamed characters “a demeaned life is better than the best death.” Throughout everything that happens, there is a kind of life-affirming glee towards everything that some may find ironic, but I feel it comes off as quite sincere, showing the value of a rich interior life to the rigors of a shallow bureaucracy. It may not be pretty at points, but Mo Yan is a brilliant writer, always finding the tiny positives in a vast sea of large negatives.