Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
Arcade Publishing 2008 English Translation
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"Yan, who often inserts himself as a character in the book, is a masterful storyteller."
An article on the swiftly changing writing scene in China in the June 2008 Poets & Writers includes an interview with Mo Yan, author of the satirical epic novel, Life and Death are Wearing me Out. Stephen Morison Jr., a literature professor in Beijing, notes in his piece that although Yan is “ostensibly paid by the government to write” the writer “isn’t producing pabulum.”
Indeed, Yan’s latest novel doesn’t hold back on China’s historic economic blunders and social injustices. The story begins with the tortuous death of Ximan Noa, the richest man in Ximan village. Lord Yama, the king of the underworld, permits him to return home but only in the form of different animals. We witness citizen reaction to the political changes between 1950 and 2000 from the perspective of a donkey, ox, pig, dog and a monkey.
Noa discovers his family and friends have undergone major changes. His son, Ximen Jinlong, has joined the Communist Party. Lan Lian, his adopted son, has moved into his house, married one of his concubine wives and now farms his land. Throughout the epic Noa is linked with Lian, a man recognized as China’s last independent farmer.
Yan spins a story in comical and exceptional prose around significant political events. The donkey, for example, recounts the changes from villages to communes. He describes the hardship of friends and family forced to give up farming and work in the smelters during the industrial period. The donkey’s life ends during the famine when he is “turned to pieces of meat.”
As an ox, Noa, who is always allowed to retain his memory, helps Lian farm his land. As a pig, during The Great Leap Forward, Noa lives a luxury life in the “Garden Pig Farm,” the Red Guard’s demonstration project. When he is reborn as a dog, Mao Zedong is dead. Noa’s and Lian’s children are grown and are involved in China’s reform period. The live of the monkey is short. The characters are into capitalism, driving luxury cars and wearing Rolex watches.
This book is reminiscent of the devil disguised as a cat in Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel, The Master and Margarita. In between the lines, Bulgakov discloses unpopular and censored information about Russia’s bureaucratic social order under communist rule.
For those who are interested in a refresher course on China’s history in this year of the Beijing Olympic games, Yan’s epic is an alternative. Yan, who often inserts himself as a character in the book, is a masterful storyteller.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla