Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Turn of the Wheel

The second Chinese novel in my reading program was Mo Yan's 生死疲勞 Life and Death are Wearing Me Out.  This absurd tale of reincarnation and redemption is the author's own choice for the work that best represents his world outlook.  If so, his outlook is sardonic, dark, and cynical indeed, yet still leaving room for optimism for the future—if only the distant, distant future.

莫言 Mo Yan—literally, "don't speak"—is in fact the pen name of 管謨業 Guan Moye, which derives (he says) from his parents' admonition not to be quite so frank and open in public as he was apparently prone to be at home.  He is the only author of the four represented in my novel-reading project to still be alive at the present time, and he is also the only one to have won a Nobel Prize for literature—even more, the only Chinese winner of that prize, ever.  He is perhaps better known for his maiden novel, 紅高粱家族 Red Sorghum Clan (1986), in large part because it was adapted into the screenplay for the award-winning movie, the haunting Red Sorghum, and perhaps in time I will read that in the original Chinese (I do have it in my library), but for now, it was Life and Death that occupied the second slot in my reading program.

The title is drawn from a Buddhist adage: 生死疲勞,從貪慾起,少欲無為,身心自在.  Loosely translated, this reads: The weariness of life and death arises from greed; when one eschews desire and meddling, the body and mind are at ease.  The title translation—chosen by Howard Greenblatt, who has translated a number of Mo Yan's books—obviously takes a different and more irreverent angle, one that reflects the twists and turns of the main character as he? it? they? trace the evolution of Chinese politics and culture over the latter half of the 20th century.

The confusion over the proper pronoun in that last sentence stems from the structure of the novel, which is divided into five parts.  西門鬧 Ximen Nao is a benevolent landowner (or so he believes), wrongly executed by Chinese communists on the opening day of the year 1950 for the crime of owning land and exercising domination over his fellow citizens.  He feels so strongly that he has been wronged that Yama, the lord of the underworld, agrees to send him back to the world of the living to give him a chance to right the wrong—though not as a human, but as a donkey under the care and stewardship of his erstwhile hired hand, 藍臉 Lan Lian (literally, "Blue Face," a reference to the birthmark on one side of his face).  As a donkey, he earns partial redemption, but only at the cost of his life.  Still unrepentant, he compels Yama to send him back again, and again, and again, each time (rather against Ximen Nao's will) as a different animal: an ox, a pig, a dog, and then at last—but that would be telling.

Because I grew up on English literature, of course, I feel a compulsion to draw an analogy between any of the Chinese authors I have read so far and familiar English-language authors.  When I read the short stories of 魯迅 Lu Xun, for instance, I saw a strong similarity to Joyce—in particular, his collection Dubliners.  Both authors have a hankering to expose the decay and inertia at the core of the culture in which they grew up, and both do so via the unremitting disillusionment experienced by some of their characters, and the callous disaffection felt by others.  In the case of Mo Yan and Life and Death, the analogy I draw is to Kurt Vonnegut and works such as Breakfast of Champions; the often impotent outrage of characters, faced with an outrageous, illogical world, is common to both.

Mo Yan has a tendency to the caustic, which works in his favor, but also, at times, to the verbose, which doesn't.  Ximen Nao's life as a pig, in particular, seems to drag on occasionally, to little end it seems beyond the reinforcement of his position as Pig Number One, Chief Porker, the Boar D'Oeuvre.  Howard Greenblatt's capable translation actually helps a little here, because although he translates Ximen Nao's life as a donkey in nearly its entirety, about 20 percent of each of the remaining sections of the novel are left out.  Mo Yan revised his novel somewhat, after Greenblatt completed his translation a year or two after the novel's original publication date, so that may account for some of the discrepancy, but it seems unlikely that those edits represent all of the difference, especially as some of the omitted passages rely on peculiar aspects of Chinese language and history, which are very difficult to translate.  In contrast to Anthony Yu's translation of Journey to the West, which is almost half endnotes, Greenblatt avoids all endnotes and footnotes altogether, instead occasionally interpolating an interpretation as a parenthetical aside, but more generally leaving tangential observations along entirely.

In the end, Mo Yan inserts himself into the story, albeit a distorted image of himself (à la Vonnegut again, I suppose).  Mo Yan the character apologizes for having to relate the pain and sorrow experienced by the characters in the novel (and created by Mo Yan the author).  But the author himself has nothing to apologize for, minor longwindedness aside, for he has created a uniquely Chinese vision of redemption and rebirth in a few hundred pages of unforgiving prose.

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