Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Written by Howard Goldblatt (trans.) Mo Yan

For a landlord, Ximen Nao wasn’t such a bad man. He was kind to his tenants, his wife, his concubine, and even the hard-working farm animals. Had he lived through any other time than Mao Zedong’s Land Reform movement, he would have lived happily to a ripe old age. Instead, an itinerant busker turned Hero of the People splatters his brains all over the rocks with an ancient musket. When Ximen Nao arrives in Hell, indignant at his unjust killing, he causes such a disturbance that Lord Yama sends him back to the land of the living as a lowly donkey—and after that an ox, a pig, a dog, and a monkey—before finally allowing him rebirth as a big-headed baby boy. Through all these lives Ximen Nao experiences the many changes in rural China over the second half of the 20th century.

Many parts of this sweeping (which is one way to say “very long”) book are funny and insightful, a celebration of individual spirit in the face of collectivization and revolutionary terror. But the pace is uneven, the story clouded by various narrators referring to the author by name and quoting from his other stories about Northeast Gaomi Township. By Ximen Nao’s fifth reincarnation Mo Yan takes over the narration himself, addressing us directly and rushing to the end as though aware his “dear Reader” might be losing interest. The novel would have been much cleaner, I think, if Mo Yan had let us follow the very entertaining Ximen Nao through all his many lives and kept his own smirking face behind the curtain.