- Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt
Heinemann, 378 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 434 88640 8
Mo Yan’s novel opens with a kind of prospectus for itself: ‘I didn’t realise until I’d grown up that Northeast Gaomi Township is easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, most unusual and most common, most sacred and most corrupt, most heroic and most bastardly, hardest-drinking and hardest-loving place in the world.’ And forthwith the narrator’s father, aged 15 in the year 1939, is seen hanging onto the coat-tails of Commander Yu Zhan’ao as the latter’s troops (forty of them, poorly armed) advance through the sorghum fields to ambush a Japanese convoy and, as it happens, kill a Japanese general. The Commander is in fact Father’s father, since Father’s mother, married off to a wealthy leper, promptly absconded with Yu, who thereafter murdered the leper. Yu began his career by stabbing to death a monk who was sleeping with his widowed mother: ‘a flow of lovely warm blood was released, soft and slippery, like the wing feathers of a bird.’ (Poetry pops up in the oddest places.) The mother then hanged herself. Such is village life, lived to the full.