Friday, 16 February 2018

Book Review: Frog by Mo Yan history of twentieth-century China is one of many violent changes that made the masses suffer a lot, but because of the geographical, cultural and political distance Westerners like me know very little about it. Above all the daily lives of the average people under the strict guidance of the Communist Party lie widely in the dark. The letters forming the epistolary novel Frog by Mo Yan, the controversial Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2012, evoke the life of a woman born in 1937 who was an obstetrician in Northeast Gaomi Township for over fifty years. She started her career delivering babies in the prosperous first decades under the reign of Chairman Mao and as a loyal Party Member she eventually hunted women pregnant for a repeated time to implement the one-child policy and abort the foetus however late. Her nephew’s wife dies in such a procedure.

Mo Yan (莫言) was born Guan Moye (管谟业) in Dalan township, Gaomi, Shandong, China, in February 1955. In 1967, two years into the cultural revolution, he had to leave school and did whatever work he could in the village brigade. After a stint in a cotton factory, he joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1976 and still a soldier he began to write when the cultural revolution ended. In 1984 he received a first literary award, went to People's Liberation Army Arts College and brought out the novella A Transparent Radish (透明的红萝卜) adopting for the first time his pen name Mo Yan meaning “don't speak” in Chinese. The novel Red Sorghum (红高粱家族) that established him as a writer came out in 1986 and was followed by many short stories, novellas and, most importantly, novels like The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜薹之歌: 1988), The Republic of Wine (酒国: 1993), Big Breasts & Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀: 1995), Sandalwood Death (檀香刑: 2001), Pow! (四十一炮: 2003), Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳: 2006), and Frog (: 2009). In 2012 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to the writer. Mo Yan lives in Beijing, China.

In March 2002, the middle-aged playwright Tadpole writes the first of a series of letters to his much-admired teacher or tutor who has returned to Japan recently. Frog is his side of a seven-year correspondence that centres on his aunt, the obstetrician Wan Xin who is a legend in the Northeast Gaomi Township under her nickname Gugu. As a girl, she was held hostage by a commander of the Japanese occupation army together with mother and grandmother, while a landmine killed her father. After China’s Liberation, Gugu went to the prefectural medical school to follow in her late father’s footsteps.
“[… ] She graduated at the age of sixteen and was assigned to the township health centre, where she undertook a training course for modern birthing methods organised by the county health bureau. Gugu forged an unbreakable bond with the sacred work of obstetrics.”
A year later Gugu delivered the first babies, among them Tadpole. News of her skill quickly spread in the region and put the old midwives out of work in no time, while years of prosperity and population growth hardly left Gugu time to rest. In 1955, she joined the Communist party and, to her family’s great relief, she got engaged to an air force pilot. Her fiancé almost ruined her life, though, defecting to Taiwan and subjecting her to suspicion. Then came the famine and birth-rates dropped to zero for over two years. Autumn 1962 brought an exceedingly good harvest.
“[…] After two months of eating their fill of sweet potatoes, all the young women in the village were pregnant it seemed. In the early winter of 1963, Northeast Gaomi Township experienced the first baby boom in the history of the People’s Republic. Two thousand eight hundred sixty-eight babies were born that year in the fifty-two villages incorporated in our commune alone. […]”
The following population explosion prompted Chairman Mao to propagate birth control and Gugu as director of the health centre’s obstetrics department and deputy head of the commune’s family-planning steering committee was in charge. When the measures showed no effect, vasectomies were ordered for every man with three or more children. By the time Tadpole married in 1979, the one-child family-planning policy was in effect and Gugu enforced it with rigour as well as conviction. Tadpole’s wife desperately wanted a second child and died during the late abortion that Gugu performed on her, but her family had to go on living…

Although as an epistolary novel Frog is naturally written in first-person from the perspective of the letter-writer himself, the greater part of the story is a very personal third-person account of his aunt’s life with a partly absurd play in 9 acts that recapitulates and alienates her biography as the grand finale. Both the narrator’s and the protagonist’s lives span as well as mirror the most important stages of Chinese history in the second half of the twentieth century, namely the Japanese occupation, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing liberalisation of trade within the one-party system. The introduction of increasingly strict birth control measures that eventually led to the recently loosened one-child policy builds the factual heart of the story, but the author’s focus clearly is on the effects that the policy had on individuals and on society. The style of the mostly chronological narrative is realistic with overtones of subtle irony mixed with black humour that hardly conceal the author’s pointed criticism of modern Chinese society. The language of my English edition translated by Howard Goldblatt is simple, clear and matter-of-fact which made it a pleasantly quick as well as effortless read.

Admittedly, I picked Frog by Mo Yan first of all because it’s an epistolary novel and because it seemed an interesting addition to my list of books written by en-NOBEL-ed writers that I’m keeping for the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge. I’m happy to say that in the end it turned out to be a really engaging and pleasurable read that also had the extra merit of acquainting me a little with modern Chinese history as well as with Chinese culture and society of today. To my pleasure, I found between the lines some cautious criticism less of Chinese politics (i.e. of the Communist one-party-system in general or of state-controlled family planning in particular) than of people’s growing egotism, not to say emotional coldness and cruelty. Some passages startled me because they were beyond my Western understanding, but all things considered it’s a book that I recommend with good conscience.

1 comment:

  1. I have this one on my list. Your review made me want to read it soon. I am currently reading The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel in 2010. It is his first novel. Watch for my review.


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