Fiction about life under tyranny reaches many Western readers after regimes have fallen.
Today Yuri Trifonov’s melancholy novels of Soviet Russia, or Herta Müller’s depictions of the everyday terror in Ceausescu’s Romania, allow us to consider totalitarianism’s spiritual toll at a historical remove. Trifonov died in 1981 but, 25 years after the fall of communism, Müller is flourishing, so our faith that oppression is eventually overcome remains intact. Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan presents us with a different challenge because we read his 11th novel, Frog, aware that the system responsible for many of his characters’ sufferings remains in place.
Reading Yan is further complicated by the knowledge that he’s a Communist Party member and has been described by Chinese dissidents, including Ai Wei Wei, as a “state writer”. Müller called his Nobel Prize “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.” However, as Frog demonstrates, Yan isn’t uncritical of China’s government. This sounds confusing but actually, although Frog has only one narrator, Xiaopao, keeping track of who’s who and checking references to classical Chinese texts is enough to think about during opening chapters.
Things settle down and Yan’s storytelling is fluent in Howard Goldblatt’s translation. Frog portrays individual responses to China’s changes over the past half-century. Xiaopao describes his boyhood, eating coal during the 1960s famine, but this is also the story of his aunt, Gugu, a gynaecologist who delivered more than 1600 babies in the mid-1950s. Reproduction was encouraged, as Chairman Mao believed a large population was healthy. Gugu considers the period “modern China’s golden age, and hers as well.” After 1979, however, she must enforce the one-child policy, overseeing thousands of abortions in the provincial backwaters of Gaomi township where the book is set.
Yan describes harrowing scenes as several women, including Xiaopao’s wife, die during abortions. There’s some of the mechanistic banality of evil about Gugu who hails the one-child policy: “China’s greatest contribution to humanity.” The contradictions of a society founded upon equality, yet obsessed with status, are evident but, as in capitalist democracies, women’s bodies are the social battleground. Men are “devastated” when their wives give birth to daughters, so they force women to defy the law in desperate attempts to produce male heirs.
By 2008, Gaomi has transformed into a prosperous emblem of new China where “there’s nothing money won’t buy.” Xiaopao, now in his 50s, has remarried and is writing a play based on real events. Xiaopao believes Gugu suffers “deep-seated feelings of guilt” about forcing women to terminate pregnancies, but concludes: “If she hadn’t done it, someone else would have.” The denouement, where Xiaopao and his wife pay a surrogate mother to bear their son, is muddled and protracted and Frog compounds suspicions that the Nobel Prize is awarded for political, as well as artistic, reasons. You want to feel a writer is aiming for truth and an ideological stubbornness in this novel prevents Yan from doing that.
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