Blood, sweat and tears
Rachel Halliburton finds pathos, pain and bodily fluids in a new novel from China; The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99
Saturday 12 August 1995
The pungency of the plant that forms the thematic thread is therefore totally appropriate. The Chinese farmers around whom the plot revolves have been led to believe that planting garlic will make them rich. By selling it to the government, they are assured a fixed return which is essential to their existence. When a market surplus renders it valueless, the silent fury brewed by the constant hardship erupts and riots ensue.
Mo Yan uses the rotting crops to symbolise the resentment and corruption against which the love affair between Gao Ma and Jinju is played out. Through a series of disjointed flashbacks, he contrasts their forbidden love with the suffering inflicted by the state on those who took part in the riots. This is a narrative of frustration. The powerlessness of the peasants, whether they are fighting for love among themselves, or for rights from the government, demonstrates the harshness of a political state which varies its standards of justice to suit the whims of its corrupt officials.
This is not a novel for the squeamish. Bodily fluids trickle everywhere, and Howard Goldblatt, the translator, uses the full poetic range of the English language to describe their sensations. When Gao Yang, a farmer, wets himself after being arrested by the police, the translation joyfully exclaims "He actually heard it slosh around his crotch". Those who read on are treated to similarly vivid descriptions of bleeding, sweating and pissing. Gao Ma, who is beaten up at the township government house feels "something warm and wet [which] slithered into his nasal cavities then continues down his face. He tried, but couldn't hold it back; whatever it was spurted out of his nostrils and entered his mouth".
These descriptions, which in isolation seem gratuitous, in context lend a surprising intimacy to the book. Mo Yan makes the reader identify with the character by forcing this close observation of their bodily functions. Such external physical signs can represent the most intense psychological states. Through these brutal aesthetics, the author cleverly shocks you into empathising with the peasants' experiences.
From such uncomfortable instances, however, Mo Yan frequently takes the reader to passages of intense beauty, offering a constant jostle of disconcerting juxtapositions which make this novel a stunning read.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 4 The biggest first date turnoff has been revealed
- 5 German man found living with 300 rats in tiny apartment
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture