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Red Sorghum: A Novel of China Hardcover – April 21, 1993
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From Library Journal
Though this is the first of Mo Yan's novels to be translated into English, many Americans know his work from the film Red Sorghum , winner of the Silver Bear at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. The four-chapter novel spans 40 years in rural China through flashbacks and foreshadowing, beginning with the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Sorghum, used as food and as an ingredient of a potent wine, had been the focus and metaphor of peasant life during peacetime. In wartime, it becomes intertwined with the struggle for life. Death pervades this novel--death brutally dealt by Japanese troops, by factions within China, by crazed dog packs; death from suicide, starvation, and freezing. The strength and love of the narrator's grandmother and her lover insure the continuation of their line against all odds. But they cannot prevent the later introduction of a hybrid sorghum into their village that lacks the "soul and bearing" of prerevolution sorghum. For literary collections.
- D.E. Perushek, Univ. of Tennesee Libs., Knoxville
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
powerful new voice on the brutal unrest of rural China in the late 20's and 30's. Mo Yan's debut novel (and first US publication) was the basis of a 1988 Oscar-nominated film. A member of the young ``root-seeking'' writers whose focus is the Chinese countryside, Mo Yan tells the story of three generations--simultaneously ``most heroic and most bastardly''- -caught up in these turbulent years. Set in a region where the sorghum is grown, the tale's as much a family history as the story of a particular time and place--a place where the red sorghum, which ``forms a glittering sea of blood and is the traditional spirit of the region,'' is also a metaphor for change and loss. The novel opens as a group of villagers led by Commander Yu, the narrator's grandfather, prepare to attack the advancing Japanese. Yu sends his 14-year-old son back home to get food for his men; but as Yu's wife returns through the sorghum fields with the food, the Japanese start firing and she's killed. Her death becomes the thread that links the past to the present as the narrator moves back and forth recording the war's progress, the fighting between rival Chinese warlords, and the history of his family. Commander Yu, a former bandit, had fallen in love with his wife when she was the young bride of the rich son of a distillery owner. Yu had murdered the husband, and this murder is one of many in a cycle in which brutality and betrayal alternate with love and sacrifice. In the 1970's, the narrator returns to pay his respects to the family graves--only to find that the red sorghum, ``our family's glorious talisman,'' replaced by a green hybrid, ``has been drowned in a raging flood of revolution and no longer exists.'' Graphic scenes of violence become numbingly repetitive, but Mo Yan tempers his brutal tale with a powerfully evocative lyricism. A notable new arrival. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Top customer reviews
Commander Yu Zhan-ao is the grandfather of the narrator, who is not a primary character in the tale. Rather, it is the narrator's father, while still a youth, and Commander Yu, who feature in most of the action. But they are surrounded by a full cast of relatives, fellow villagers, fellow soldiers, local political bosses, bandits. Even dogs, representing man's uneven relationship with nature, feature prominently, as they are eaten, tamed and ultimately fight back.
And there is action aplenty. This is a brutal, bloody tale of rural China during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. Yet at the same time there are many moments of humor, love, passion. It is a time, place and life very different from that known my most Western readers. You know by now that the author, Mo Yan, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature, the first Chinese to be so honored. The endless rows of red sorghum in the story come from the fields of his youth. Mo's genius is telling a compelling tale involving complex, three-dimensional characters in a style which is direct and gritty but also mystical and rich with symbolic imagery. The ever-present sorghum of the title is a metaphor for life and death, safety and menace, and, above all, blood, red blood.
Mo moves the reader back in forth in time. A past event will be mentioned, almost in passing, and you can be sure the narrative will come back to elaborate in great detail. Although this sort of foreshadowing, along with references to the characters' futures and the fact that we know the narrator's father survives to produce the narrator, may create a risk of dampening the drama and the urge to read on, the opposite, in fact, results, and the story is riveting throughout.
It is a family saga that is presented in a circuitous manner and in a very earthy exposition. As we learn the story of a rural family, their village and their region during the Japanese invasion and occupation, we are confronted by a union of opposites: life/death, beauty/gore, love/depravity. In this fable, these conjoined aspects are not just coincident, they both emerge as essential for the understanding of the whole.
If there is a message to be culled from this work, it seems to me to be that humans are deeply and fundamentally flawed, but are just as deeply robust in their ability to persevere.
I gave this collection 4 stars only because after reading the first four novellas, I got bored with what I felt was an overly prolonged outcome. After a while, I grew weary of all the flashbacks and started to feel that the writer (who is highly regarded in China) should've/could've wrapped up the saga in 3 or 4 novellas, instead.