Friday, March 1, 2019

The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library

This is another of those books that has been on my list so long, I honestly don’t remember who recommended it or when.

What I do know is this: Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2012 for his body of work, including this book, Mo Yan is a pen name - it means “don’t speak,” the book was banned in China, and yet Mo Yan is unusual in that he won the prize and yet did not find himself in prison in China.

Mo Yan wrote quite a number of books prior to and after this one, and, like this one, most were translated into English by Howard Goldblatt, who also abridged some of them. It is not at all clear if that happened in this case - a quick internet search didn’t turn up anything definitive. In any case, it is fairly certain I will never read it in the original language, so what I read is what I had available.

 The Garlic Ballads was written in 1995, but is set in 1987, during a historical event - the “garlic glut.” The characters are fictional, but very much of the rest is quite historical. The basic events went down like this: officials of the local Chinese government order the local farmers to plant only one crop - garlic - and promise to pay a fixed rate for it. When the crop matures, there is a glut, and the same officials refuse to buy the garlic, it rots, causing a stink and ruining many of the farmers. They revolt and trash the office of the local commissioner, who hides in his home and refuses to respond. The government cracks down on the protesters, arresting many, who are then subjected to brutal conditions and abuse. Against this backdrop, Mo Yan writes a doomed love story, a tale of prejudice, and several episodes of corruption and oppression by the authorities.

Let me say at the outset that this book is brutal. And I don’t use that term lightly. It is thoroughly violent, with every kick and punch from the police landing with full force. Bodily fluids are everywhere, and if you can’t take people being forced to eat their vomit and urine, you probably shouldn’t read this book. I know our own law enforcement here in the United States has serious issues - and I wouldn’t want to be a young man of color here. But this is on a whole different level, where cattle prods and torture are considered a matter of course, and “justice” is not even an illusion - “confess or we make it harder on you” from everyone from the judge on down. So if you are looking for anything pleasant in this book, I warn that they are very, very few and far between.

The book focuses on two main characters - we see the events mostly through their eyes. The first is Gao Yang, a farmer who is socially disadvantaged because of his descent from people who were landlords before Communism. He is the recipient of much of the abuse in the book, despite his natural submissiveness and puzzlement at what is happening to him. (He got involved in the protests because he got caught up in the crowd, but is singled out as a “ringleader” apparently because of his social standing.) If anything “good” can be said to happen in this book, we assume it will happen in the future after he serves his time. And, to a large degree, we can hope things work out for him because of his wife, who is one of the truly decent people in the book. Perhaps because she is crippled (and therefore undesirable for marriage), she has both compassion and a resilience that other characters lack. The second is Gao Ma, another farmer, who has personal issues of his own, and who actually is a ringleader in the revolt. A smaller portion is told from the perspective of Fourth Aunt Fang, the matriarch of the Fang family.

Mo Yan doesn’t write a sequential story. We are plunged into the aftermath of the revolt with Gao Yang’s arrest, and it takes all of the book before we actually get back to the circumstances of the revolt itself. The characters essentially tell the back story through flashbacks, which are also interspersed with stories from legend and conversations with other characters. To top it off, part of the narrative is carried by short poetry excerpts at the beginning of the chapters, by the blind balladeer who sang the story of the garlic glut and revolt. (The title comes from these songs.) Thus, I would not say that the plot thread is easy to follow. Particularly at first, one can see glimpses of the past and future, but everything is so unclear. I would say that I was able to piece together the outline about halfway through, but many details were still not in place until near the end.

A couple of things really stood out to me about the book. The first is this: a lot of what we here in the West have been taught about Communism - particularly the Chinese version - is a big pile of excrement. It is particularly egregious on the part of the Right in their intentional oversimplification of Communist regimes to an economic system. I have written about this before in the past, specifically how systems like Communism and Nazism are united by their totalitarianism. Not so much religion or philosophy or economics, but by a belief in the necessity to exert absolute control over a population. Thus, it is the existence of the secret police - those above the law and answering only to the corrupt bosses - that define these regimes. I have read a number of books written by those who lived in these assorted countries during totalitarianism, and the universal theme is the lack of political, not economic freedom, which defines them. (One recent example is The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li, also about Communist China, from an insider.)

In this book, this is apparent from the outset. By 1987, at least, the rural Chinese farmers appear to own their land. It certainly seems that way. And, despite the “grow garlic and we’ll buy it,” edict, just about everyone still grows other foods for their own use. A few even hedge their bets, and don’t seem to suffer a consequence. The main way we can tell this is still a communist system is that there is a single buyer for the crops. Which, come to think of it, isn’t that far off from how some markets work here in the West. So no, it isn’t a truly free market, but it isn’t a full command economy, and “capitalism” exists in a recognizable form. After all, the farmers sell their crops and keep the proceeds. If they work harder and grow more, they get more money. So it isn’t somehow that people are too equal that is the problem. (And in practice, they aren’t that equal.) It is the totalitarianism.

What is striking, however, is the way that the totalitarian system readily adapts to the looser economic system - and becomes less a doctrinaire communism, and more like a corrupt kleptocracy, where those in power cheat and steal and take bribes and enrich themselves at the expense of others. And because absolute authority is accepted, they can get away with it.

This leads me to the second observation. In some ways, the Communism of Mao was a radical change from tradition. (Which is one reason why the Cultural Revolution led to mass starvation and other horrific results.) In this book, the past and present cultures both co-exist and fight for dominance.

The best example of this is at the heart of the doomed love story. Gao Ma is in love with young Fang Jinju, the only daughter of Fourth Aunt Fang. However, he is just a poor farmer and former soldier, so her family rejects the idea. Rather, what they want to do is marry her off to a much older and connected man with money...who hasn’t been able to marry before because he is gross and undesirable. But, in this case, there is a sweetener. If Jinju marries him, then Jinju’s deformed eldest brother will get a wife in exchange, which will allow the second brother to marry as well. So her body is basically sold in exchange for social and economic advantage.

Contracts like these are illegal under Communism, which has tried - with some success - to shift society to a more egalitarian view of the sexes. But out here in the rural districts, the law is not enforced, both because of the strength of misogynistic tradition and the universal fact that the wealthy and connected can do whatever the hell they want. The spirited Jinju is not okay with this and refuses, then runs off with Gao Ma and gets pregnant, throwing a huge wrench in the works. And then her family brutally beats her. This does not end well, alas. The greed and cruelty in the Fang family cause them to unravel when things start to go badly wrong.

It is interesting that there are signs of gender equality here and there in the story. Many of the police are female - and they are more likely to act compassionately and justly than the often vulgar and cruel men. The doctor who delivers the children in the village is female and highly educated. She pushes back against the rural parents who celebrate the birth of males, and mourn the birth of females. (As she correctly points out, the very same people then whine about how hard it is to find wives for their beloved sons. On a macro scale, this misogyny has led to a serious lack of females in China.)

Whatever else this book contains, it certainly does not fit an easy “socialism good, capitalism bad” narrative. Instead, it looks at the problems of corruption, of the ugly side of “tradition,” the challenges of forced change, and the human propensity toward violence and brutality. The problems seem rather more universally human than specific to one culture or government. The cure seems not “unrestrained capitalism” but a need for freedom, compassion, and decency. And really, all of those are bound up together. When we recognize others as human and treat them with compassion and empathy, we tend to give them freedom. It is when we dehumanize that enforcing rules and authority becomes more important than everything else. (Hey, didn’t the founder of a major religion talk about that a bit?)

I can’t say I really “enjoyed” this book. It was a tough read. But it also had some amazing writing - although I can’t say how much is in the original versus the translation. The descriptions are evocative, the emotional connection with the characters solid, and the language beautiful. I would be curious if all of Mo Yan’s books are this dark, because it would be interesting to see what he would do with characters in a world in which they could thrive, rather than be brutalized.

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