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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding