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BOOK REVIEW / Shooting a family in glorious technicolour: 'Red Sorghum' - Mo Yan, Tr Howard Goldblatt: Heinemann, 14.99

EVERY culture has its symbolic equivalent to red sorghum - a Palestinian olive tree, a Canadian maple, a cotton bush in the American deep South. But none of them are quite like the Chinese sorghum in Mo Yan's novel, which is food, drink and shelter as well as an aesthetic end in itself: 'Vast stretches of red sorghum shimmered like a sea of blood. Tall and dense, it reeked of glory; cold and graceful, it promised enchantment.'

This sorghum is the one wholehearted linking device in a fragmented narrative so close-packed with chronological displacements and curtailed actions that Xhang Yimou made his Oscar-nominated film from the first two chapters alone. Presented as the history of the narrator's own family from the 1920s to the 1970s, it concentrates on the brutal wars the Chinese fought in the Thirties, both with the Japanese and with each other.

We are quickly alerted to Yan's exquisite and irritating style - on page two he characterises the place of the narrative, Northeast Gaomi Township, as 'easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, most unusual and most common, most sacred and most corrupt, most heroic and most bastardly, hardest-drinking and hardest-loving place in the world'. Grandiose contradictions are Yan's stock in trade, especially in the gleaming, vicious scenes of war that dominate the book.

The characters die as much as they live; their deaths are prefigured in their short lives, and in death they become legends. Uncle Arhat, for example, gives up the ghost for the first time on page nine, when the narrator says: 'Uncle Arhat had died the year before on Jiao-Ping highway . . . As the skin was being stripped from his body, his flesh jumped and quivered . . .'; again on page 15, when he comments: 'It was then that Arhat Liu . . . was caught, and the next day the Japanese soldiers tied him to a tethering post, skinned him alive . . .'; once more on page 39, and so on throughout the novel. Yan thus tracks the mythologising of death in a culture forced to take war into its very heart, to reshape itself in the image of death.

The narrator's grandmother, for instance, becomes a legend in the moment of her demise. She lived with a bandit and made a fortune out of selling sorghum wine, but we are constantly told that she was a great heroine of the resistance when she met her end. When this long-awaited moment finally arrives, we are intrigued to hear that she is killed bringing loaves to the troops; it is her first entry into the scenes of conflict, and she seems less a heroine than an unlucky passer-by. In Yan's vision of war the action slips so quickly into myth that there is no real distinction between horror and beauty, heroism and cowardice. Months later, Grandmother's corpse is pulled from the common grave to be given a proper funeral: 'According to Father, Grandma emerged from the resplendent, aromatic grave as lovely as a flower. But the faces of the Iron Society soldiers contorted whenever they described in gory detail the hideous shape of her corpse and the suffocating stench issuing from the grave.'

Even before the wars began, this was a culture founded on banditry and murder. But in little sketches of love and family intrigue threaded between the endless violence, Yan also builds up a picture of a peculiarly rich domestic culture shot through with magic and madness. It might well be as attractive to European readers as the worlds created by Garcia Marquez or Ben Okri; a realm where ordinary emotions take on a surreal, gorgeous force.

Delightful as they are, in Mo Yan's novel such moments tend to build up and fade out without leading on. Yan prefers the mosaic effect to any depth of field; a play of surfaces to a cumulative development. One comparatively long and weighty scene, the funeral of the narrator's grandmother, is interrupted by a visit of a funny but potentially sinister old stranger on a mule. With great panache, Yan describes the scene's mixture of humour and foreboding before despatching this walk-on character with a huge fanfare, spurts of blood and terrible explosions. What is it all about? He has introduced a mystery simply to destroy it. The meaning may be here: 'The Iron Society soldiers searched him thoroughly, but all they found was a couple of marbles, one bright green, the other bright red, each with a little cat's eye bubble in the centre.' Yan will stop anything, he will pile death upon death, for two tiny touches of glorious colour.

Clearly, this is the way to read Red Sorghum - revelling in Yan's power to paint the world; his glittering way with similes, in which piss patters 'like pearls falling into a jade plate'; his dashing rhetoric. At the end, Yan is prepared to stake his book on the beauty of colour: vividness is all: 'I think of surpassingly beautiful scenes that will never again appear . . . the red tips of sorghum rising above the muddly yellow water, appealing stubbornly to the blue sky above . . . That is the epitome of mankind and the beauty for which I yearn.'