Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

Written by Mo Yan
Review by Viviane Crystal

Imagine living within a fifty-year span, from 1950 to 2000, in China, when revolutionary change is a constant rather than an exception. It’s a time when each person is careful to do the “right thing,” while realizing that what is right today may be totally unacceptable tomorrow.

Yes, Mo Yan’s novel charts Chinese history from the rise of the revered Chairman Mao to the post-reform period of Deng Xiaoping. But the reader only meets these political idealists through the thoughts, words, and deeds of people like Ximen Nao, who dies many deaths but is reborn to narrate this tale as a donkey, ox, pig, dog, monkey, and finally as the boy, Big-Headed Lan Qiansui. His narration, with satirical comic insertions by the writer Mo Yan, who is also part of the novel, is the most pivotal, fascinating aspect. What starts out as a outrageous diatribe at his own execution turns into satire worthy of Jonathan Swift as these Chinese suburban farmers harass Ximen Nao to join the Communist Party, embrace the mythical quest for perfect pig farming, transform their farms to subsistence style output, and move into the semi-democratic mode of trying to become capitalists who will make a fortune by planning a stunning rural resort. Rebels and loyal believers mourn Mao’s death with tragic expression. Mythology, romance, murder, and adventuresome idealism clash with simplicity, independence and realistic bewilderment. Today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy! Today’s peasant is tomorrow’s entrepreneur!

Mo Yan is a brilliant writer who manages to convey the essence of Chinese history in the way it matters most, through its people. A must read that between the lines of parody is both informative and delightful.