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Life and Death are Wearing Me Out: A Novel Hardcover – March 19, 2008
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From The Washington Post
Reviewed by Steven Moore
To encompass the ideological insanity of Mao Zedong's policies and the unimaginable horrors he inflicted on the Chinese people requires a boldly unconventional style. That need has been filled by this wild man of Chinese fiction: Mo Yan -- a pseudonymic phrase meaning "Don't speak." Over the last 20 years, Mo Yan has been writing brutally vibrant stories about rural life in China that flout official Party ideology and celebrate individualism over conformity. (How he has escaped imprisonment -- or worse -- I don't know.) He also flouts literary conformity, spiking his earthy realism with fantasy, hallucination and metafiction.
His previous novel, the voluptuously titled Big Breasts & Wide Hips, revealed the horrors of Chinese life during the first half of the 20th century; his new one, the exuberantly imaginative Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out, covers the second, even worse half. The story, which revives the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, begins on Jan. 1, 1950, in hell. Lord Yama, king of the underworld, is examining a benevolent landowner named Ximen Nao, who was brutally executed two years earlier (like thousands of landowners) so that his land could be redistributed to peasants. Frustrated that Ximen will not admit any guilt, Yama punishes him by sending him back to his village in the form of a donkey.
Ximen remains in that form for the next 10 years, witnessing the Land Reform Movement and the disastrous Great Leap Forward that killed tens of millions of people (and an unrecorded number of Chinese animals -- the novel reminds us this Earth belongs to them, too). The donkey is angry at first when he learns his trusted farmhand Lan Lian has married Ximen's concubine, but he's mollified as Lan carries on as a fiercely independent farmer, the last holdout in collectivized China. The donkey is killed during the great famine, accompanied by appropriate animal imagery: "Then the famine came," Mo Yan writes, "turning the people into wild animals, cruel and unfeeling. After eating all the bark from trees and the edible grass, a gang of them charged into the Ximen estate compound like a pack of starving wolves." Ximen is reincarnated next as an ox, then a pig, a dog, a monkey and finally -- on New Year's Eve 2000 -- as a child. On his fifth birthday, the child and elderly Lan Lian get together and, taking turns, narrate the novel we've just read.
It's a grimly entertaining overview of recent Chinese history. As a "wise German shepherd" summarizes it, "People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid of their own shadows, in the 1980s they carefully weighed people's words and actions, and in the 1990s they were simply evil." But brave individuals emerge as the true heroes; aside from the animal reincarnations of Ximen Nao, these include Lan Lian for refusing to give in to communal pressure, and his son Lan Jiefang, who defies convention by abandoning his legal wife (from an arranged marriage) for a woman he loves, ruining himself in the process. The most colorful individual is the novelist himself, who pops in and out of the story, usually to the annoyance of the other characters.
But I don't want to leave the impression that this is a gimmicky book that makes light of recent Chinese history. Born in 1955, Mo Yan endured the worst of it -- he, too, was so poor that he ate tree bark -- and there are descriptions that will shock readers into realizing this is no literary game. Indeed, reality keeps outrunning the author's satire. Near the end of the novel, a born-again capitalist devises a Cultural Revolution theme park, as tasteless as a Nazi theme park in Poland. And yet there are now Cultural Revolution-themed cafés in China, favored by urban hipsters with an almost American ignorance of history.
Mo Yan offers insights into communist ideology and predatory capitalism that we ignore at our peril. This "lumbering animal of a story," as he calls it, combines the appeal of a family saga set against tumultuous events with the technical bravura of innovative fiction. Catch a ride on this wheel of transmigration.
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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The story is told as an extended conversation between two narrators, one of whom on several occasions dies and undergoes reincarnation. Ximen Nao is a landowner in the agricultural district of Northeast Gaomi Township. He is a wealthy and respected member of the community until the Communist Revolution, when he is executed so his land can be redistributed. When the novel opens, Ximen Nao is in the underworld, being tortured by the demon minions of Lord Yama, the judge in charge of assigning reincarnations. His soul is sent back to Earth in the body of a donkey, born in the very same village where he previously resided. While a donkey, he maintains some of his human intelligence and is able to observe and interact with his descendants and former neighbors. At the same time, he also adopts the nature of a donkey, concerns himself with donkey matters, and socializes with his fellow donkeys. This cycle of reincarnation continues throughout the book, as Ximen Nao comes back successively as an ox, pig, dog, monkey, and finally as a human child who serves as one of the narrators. Admittedly, this is disorienting at first. As the novel goes on, however, Mo Yan leaves enough bread crumbs for the reader to follow the trail of what’s going on, and after a while one really appreciates this unique manner of storytelling.
As a donkey, Ximen Nao becomes the property of Lan Lian, one of his former tenant farmers, who has married Ximen Nao’s former concubine and is now raising Ximen Nao’s children. While all the farmers of Gaomi Township, under Chairman Mao’s urging, are joining the local farming cooperative, Lan Lian defiantly chooses to remain an independent farmer. As the village’s sole holdout, he (and his donkey) suffer great persecution for this decision. Though often told in a satirical manner, the novel vividly brings to life the paranoia and vindictiveness of the Cultural Revolution, when anyone accused of displaying remotely capitalist tendencies could be punished by their vigilante neighbors. The novel spans the years 1950 to 2000, so Mo Yan later gets the opportunity to apply his biting wit to China’s recent transformation towards capitalism.
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is really a fascinating look at Chinese history and a fun read loaded with dark humor. The book’s one major fault is that it is just too long. Lengthiness itself is not a fault, but there is definitely some fat that could be trimmed here. The midsection, in particular, sometimes makes overly protracted digressions into the animal lives, replete with feces and sex jokes. One must admit, however, that when Mo Yan tries to be funny, he truly is funny. It is admirable the way he effortlessly weaves lowbrow profanity into his epic literary narrative. In real life, Mo Yan grew up in Gaomi, and he playfully inserts himself as a supporting character in the book, a troublemaking problem child who grows up to be an overrated writer.
For all its laughs, however, the overall arc of the novel is ultimately tragic, as we watch members of the family and community meet with disappointment, dishonor, and death. The book contains some profoundly moving scenes of emotional power that belie its predominantly satirical bent. Together the light and the dark, the high and the low, the comedy and the tragedy, all add up to a truly memorable reading experience.
The story seems simple at first - a rich land owner is killed by a mob during the revolution. So he goes to Lord Yama (in charge of the afterlife) and Lord Yama decides to send him back to his village. First as a donkey, then as a sensitive and loyal ox, next he is a wiley, clever pig, then a wise and loyal dog and at last he is a rather large monkey before he is finally permitted to return as a special boy.
This is an amazing story and the one flaw for me was there were too many characters with very similar Chinese names so at first it was quite difficult to keep track of who was who, although there is a list of characters in front of the book if the reader becomes confused like I did. I'd have given this 4 1/2 stars because of that, but that would be quibbling.
Because the story and the characters become a little complicated plus it's been translated from Chinese, I found it impossible to read from beginning to end, which is how I normally approach a book. I will go at it relentlessly until I complete it. With this book, for the first time I stopped reading, read another book, then went back, then stop and read another book, etc. But I never let this one go. Normally, when I stop reading a book more than one time it's because I have (in truth) drifted away usually because I'm disinterested. But this was not the case with this one. I would stop when I needed a break, then tear in again until I couldn't go on. Very early this morning I finished and the ending blew me away!
While reading synopsises of his other books, I wondered why more of his work isn't made into film. His writing is incredibly descriptive and quite picturesque - and I imagine the prose would translate into screenplay relatively easily because the writing contains so much color and detail.
One of my favorite films is Red Sorghum, which I saw many years ago and this morning, I learned it was this author - Mo Yan - who wrote that passionate story the film was made from. Seeing it changed how I felt about China, what I thought I understood and now I feel that much richer for having read this extraordinary and entertaining book. I'm going to read "The Republic of Wine" next.
1. Life and Death are Wearing Me Out
2. Son of the Circus (was #1 for about 20 years)
3. Midnight's Children
4. Life of Pi
5. God of Small Things
6. A Prayer for Owen Meany
7. The Sweetness of Tears
8. The Poisonwood Bible
9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
10. The Illustrated Alchemist
Most recent customer reviews
This book is one of my favorites! I can see why Mo Yan was chosen for a Nobel. Makes one believe in reincarnation with ease.