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

Rachel Halliburton
Friday 11 August 1995 23:02
Comments

It is easy to see why The Garlic Ballads was banned in China. From the very first page, Mo Yan launches an attack on the reader's senses, portraying with grisly reality the pain of torture, love, and the struggle to survive in a Chinese peasant community. A detached reaction is impossible. The novel swamps you with blood, piss and sweat.

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.

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