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.
In between fighting the Japanese invaders, the petty warlords of the locality fight one another, or else do battle with the dogs who have grown ferocious on the flesh of corpses. No gory detail is spared. Heads explode or fly off, as do other limbs, men are split down the middle, innards tumble out (‘Father found it hard to believe that a man’s belly could hold such a pile of intestines’), genitals are sliced off (‘You women look away,’ orders Grandad Yu, as their private parts are stuffed into the mouths of dead Japanese: in which he shows unusual considerateness given the frequency of rape and gang-rape), dogs eat human corpses, humans eat the dogs. To say that animals have a hard time of it would be bathetic. Grandad and Father anticipate modern drug-running methods when, in order to smuggle ammunition through Japanese lines, they fill a billy-goat with hundreds of bullets and stitch up its rectum. The worst single atrocity, minutely related, must be the slow skinning alive of Uncle Arhat by the village butcher on the orders of a Japanese officer. It rains heavily that night, washing the earth clean, and thus creating ‘a beautiful legend’, spreading from one generation to the next, to the effect that Uncle Arhat’s corpse had disappeared mysteriously. ‘China may have nothing else, but it’s got plenty of people.’ A bloody defeat is really a great victory, an old man declares: ‘There are four hundred million of us Chinese. If we take on the Japs, one on one, how do you think their little country will fare? If one hundred million of us fought them to the death, they’d be wiped out, but there’d still be three hundred million of us.’
Brutality, military and civil, is rife. No doubt it is all a reflection of the truth, of what actually happened in those years, yet it seems to exceed the proprieties and the demands of fiction. And there are no visionaries or poets or students in evidence, and no reference to anything more intellectual than Outlaws of the Marshes. What saves the novel from collapsing into a blood-soaked amalgam of The Good Earth and Cold Comfort Farm is its occasional moments of bliss, even of prosperity, and its fantastic set-pieces. The technically illicit love-making of Grandad Yu and Grandma (then 16, and soon to prove ‘a model of women’s independence’ and a hero of the resistance) is described in the appropriate poetic language: ‘two unbridled souls ... exchanged their love surrounded by the vitality of the sorghum field,’ they ‘ploughed the clouds and scattered rain in the field’, and Father was ‘conceived with the essence of heaven and earth’. At one stage the family are doing nicely with the wine they brew (from sorghum, of course), which is uniquely rich and fragrant; the secret ingredient is supplied by Grandad, who pisses into it. And the more elaborate set-pieces have a distinct flavour of Latin American ‘magic realism’ about them. For instance, the Taoist’s exorcism of a demon who has possessed Second Grandma (‘Passion’ by name): she is dead but she won’t lie down, and a stream of dire curses flows from her mouth.
The scene in which ‘Upright’ Magistrate Cao arbitrates the disputed ownership of a chicken is reminiscent of The Caucasian Chalk Circle: more correctly, it may well be inspired by the Chinese folk-tale from which Brecht’s play indirectly derived. Cao asks the claimants how the chicken was fed that morning. On cereal mash and bran, says the man. On sorghum, says the woman. Cao has the hen’s crop slit, and out comes a mess of sorghum seeds. So the man is made to pay the woman what he has in his pocket (and gets a good beating), while the woman is awarded the dead chicken to make soup for her ailing mother-in-law. And in one of the novel’s chronological shifts, here a leap forward of 46 years, lightning strikes a site known as All-Souls Grave, grotesquely resurrecting the bones of Communists, Nationalists, Japanese soldiers, Chinese puppet troops, and ‘commoners’, all of them much of a muchness by now – together with the skulls of dogs, which, an old man says, should also be tossed back in, adding ambiguously: ‘The dogs back then were as good as humans.’ Grandma herself might be said to have had a truly splendid if belated funeral, attended by the accidental death of a dozen people in the crush, and followed by the intentional death of an indefinite number of others in a clash between rival patriotic bands.
There are some pungent one-liners, too. It was Grandma’s bound feet, her ‘golden lotuses’, that drew the men, rather than her lovely face: ‘Even a pock-faced witch is assured of marriage if she has tiny bound feet’. The explanation given here, more specific than is common, being that the ‘delicate, pointed tips’ have long been seen as genital organs. And when, in the course of a pitched battle between men and dogs, Father loses a testicle, the woman Liu comments cheeringly: ‘Single-stalk garlic is always the hottest.’
The sorghum fields are red like blood, or red with blood; they provide food and drink, medicine and disinfectant, they serve as lovebed, deathbed, battlefield and burial ground. Though the hungry and warring generations tread them down, they rise again. But the closing pages are difficult to interpret. After ten years’ absence from his village, the narrator returns, professedly degraded by his exposure to ‘high society’ (where?, one wonders) and immersion in ‘the filth of urban life’, his body ‘covered with the seals of approval of famous people’. And the sorghum around him now is an imported hybrid variety, grey-green instead of red, high-yield but lacking soul and with a bitter, astringent taste; moreover, it causes rampant constipation. ‘How I loathe hybrid sorghum.’ The passage seems to be saying something in code, not easily deciphered.
Thinking of the beautiful scenes of the past, the land covered by sorghum forming ‘a glittering sea of blood’, he sinks into despair. Then he hears the ghostly voices of his family, male and female in unison, pointing the way out: ‘You pitiable, frail, suspicious, stubbornly biased child, whose soul has been spellbound by poisonous wine, go down to the Black Water River and soak in its waters for three days and three nights – remember, not a day more or a day less – to cleanse yourself, body and soul. Then you can return to your real world.’ There remains a stalk of pure-red sorghum which, once he has found it at whatever sacrifice, will serve as a talisman when he re-enters ‘a world of dense brambles and wild predators’. ‘It is your talisman, as well as our family’s glorious totem and a symbol of the heroic spirit of Northeast Gaomi Township!’ That the peasants are always right, always good, may pass as a general political or moral principle, but this is a curious and unconvincing note on which to end a book in which peasants have been depicted – to put it mildly – so unsentimentally. The alternatives to village life must be horrendous in the extreme.
According to the jacket note, Mo Yan, born in 1956 and now ‘the most critically acclaimed Chinese writer of his generation’, works for the cultural affairs department of the People’s Liberation Army. In its original language Red Sorghum was published by the Liberation Army Publishing House (a circumstance which is probably not as strange as it sounds to us) in Beijing in 1987, apparently with a number of cuts since the present translation is based on a Taipei edition of 1988 in which deleted material was restored. The novel’s popularity in the People’s Republic, like the success of the film made from it, is not hard to account for; and since it deals almost solely with the years of the Sino-Japanese War, one might suppose that it has been found politically correct or at least largely inoffensive, and is therefore relatively (the adverb is always advisable in this sphere) safe.
If the book is taken seriously – and we know the Chinese take books seriously – then it makes the Tiananmen Square massacre look like a minor commotion, barely worth noticing. Obviously such was not its intention; but it could conceivably be its effect. All flesh is sorghum. China is great and eternal; the lives of its people are often short and filled with suffering. As if the latter condition is necessary to the former?