Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mo Yan: The Garlic Ballads

I don’t understand China, but I decided to read The Garlic Ballads by this year’s Nobelist in Literature, Mo Yan. I don’t understand the book any more than anything else about China. I can follow the narrative, which is not in chronological order, but still not too complicated -- I just find the culture to be a challenge.

At the beginning of each chapter of The Garlic Ballads, we hear a few lines about garlic and politics, sung by a blind street singer named Zhang Kou. At the beginning:
“Pray listen, my fellow villagers, to Zhang Kou’s tale of the mortal world and Paradise! 
The nation’s founder, Emperor Liu of the Great Han, 
Comanded citizens of our country to plant garlic for tribute…” (p. 1)
Who is Emperor Liu? I don’t know. Why garlic? We’ll find out.

After a few lines of ballad starting each chapter, the author slowly introduces a number of characters: dirt farmers in the village, the poor and mistreated of China. They have planted garlic for the 1987 harvest because it was selling for a lot of money – and because the planners told them to. They are very poor. They complain all the time because of rapidly rising prices of the things they need, such as pork and fertilizer for their garlic fields. The peasant women even have to stand in line at the birthing center. They constantly have to bribe the officials, who live much better than they do.

When it’s time to sell the garlic, the market collapses and the farmers are left worse off than ever. Communist ideals of earlier days have been betrayed as this new free enterprise enables whole new abusive situations under the onus of bureaucracy. I think that this life doesn’t make sense to the characters, and that’s a reason why it doesn’t make sense to me.

The first chapter tells of the arrest of one of these farmers, Gao Yang, who seems to have no idea what crime he was being accused of. Soon we meet another character named Gao Ma, who is also accused of a crime – starting a riot at the local city hall. A third arrestee, who appears somewhat later, is a woman of the village with a complicated relationship to the others. The chapters bob and weave back and forth between the horrible conditions in their jail cells, the filth, the lice, the smells, the abusive fellow prisoners. We follow the prisoners’ memories of their lives, from the time their fellow elementary school students mistreated them, through the recent garlic debacle, and up to the time of their arrest.

Garlic is everywhere. Green shoots in the fields. Piled in the farmers’ carts pulled by cow or donkey. In everything the farmers eat. Overflowing the warehouses. Confiscated in shakedowns by petty officials. Rotting in the street. An ingredient in many very unappetizing meals. Garlic everywhere! The crop should have sold for lots of money. As the blind poet said,
“Sing of the brilliant Party Central Committee… Elders and brothers, get rich on garlic, remake yourselves!” (p. 205)
Food is one of the principal elements in the characters’ lives. Most of the time they eat coarse flatbread “hard and resistant as a frozen rag.” In jail, one prisoner receives a bowl of noodle soup to make others jealous, so they will abuse him – their normal ration is “one steamed bun and a ladleful of soup.” (p. 87) The best meal in book is for a prisoner on death row -- a last dinner of fatty pork, potatoes, wafer cakes fried on a griddle and stuffed with green onions, and bean paste. (p. 247) Prison buns are made from stale mildewed flour with a few vegetables – and garlic, “raw, cold garlic,” “cold garlic broth” (pp. 79, 123)

Sometimes I felt as if I was reading an even grimmer version of the “laughter through tears” style of Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem, whose characters endured similar mistreatment -- though not really as degrading. Reviewers have compared Mo Yan to Dickens, to Faulkner, or to South American Magical Realists. Hmmm.

Comedy or tragedy? There’s a comic scene when Gao Ma attempts to take a bride whose family had promised her elsewhere. But her tragic suicide is in no way amusing. The failure to sell garlic involves some comic scenes. But as the discouraged farmers, who had waited in a line of “farmers, trucks, oxcarts, horsecarts, tractors, bicycles, even motorbikes” (p. 130), dragged their garlic back home, one dies a tragic death when struck by a drunken official driving an unlicensed car. The riot in government offices is somewhat comic. I guess.

Jail time is too humiliating to be funny, as are lives of mistreatment in memories; one charater says “dogs are better off than we are. People feed them when they’re hungry, and as a last resort, they can survive on human waste.” (p. 124) Finally, one accused prisoner stands up to the judges at his trial, and a seemingly true voice of a noble soldier pleads for a better society.

The epigraph to the entire novel is attibuted to Joseph Stalin, “Novelists are so concerned with ‘man’s fate’ that they tend to lose sight of their own fate. Therein lies their tragedy.” I say attributed, since the only google hits for the quote are in articles about The Garlic Ballads, not about Stalin. I don’t understand this book.

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