Monday, May 28, 2012

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan

Mo Yan is a pen name. It means 'Don't Speak' and the writer Guan Moye adopted it because he has a tendency to talk too much. This comes, he says, from one of his two muses: loneliness (the other is hunger).

Mo Yan is an unusual Chinese writer to reach an audience in the West. Most of the others I have come across have been emigrants telling of the privations of the life they have escaped. Mo Yan, in contrast, lives it still. When this collection was published in 2001 he was still a staff officer in the People's Liberation Army. Perhaps he still is. He was born a peasant and only dreamed of becoming of a writer when a college student, who had been labelled a rightist, was sent to work alongside him in a field. The intellectual writers I have come across viewed this rural re-education as a form of endurance (and I think I would too), but for Mo Yan I guess it was the only life he knew.

Later he joined the army and escaped this hard life of toil too. He had little formal education and so knows nothing about literary theories, relying on just his experiences in order to write. The result is fresh, unusual and highly acclaimed by people like Amy Tan and Kenzaburo Oe.

In his collection, Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, there is great variety of form and theme: from the funny and slightly bawdy ('Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh' - which deals with the money-making scheme of a man made redundant one month before he is due to retire), to the atmospheric and sad ('Man and Beast' - which deals with a soldier hiding in a cave during the second world war, and is really about bereavement). 'Soaring' is an impressive example of magical realism in which a reluctant bride takes flight; while 'Iron Child', which is also fantastical, seems to be more allegorical and is set during the Great Leap Forward. 'The Cure' is also set in the mid twentieth century and gives a flavour of the way traditional beliefs still held sway alongside local politics, while in 'Shen Garden' something positive comes from the Cultural Revolution. 'Abandoned Child' is more modern, and is a thoughtful study on the reality of the Chinese One Child policy.

It is a strong collection giving an unusual insight into recent China with humour giving a satisfying counterbalance to the surreal and the tragic.


Anonymous Shelley said...

For some reason, the tone here reminds me of Sherman Alexie....

Tue May 29, 04:47:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Shelly - I've not heard of Sherman Alexei. I shall have to find out more.

P.S. I just took a look at your website. What an excellent project! I wish you much success with it.

Wed May 30, 08:37:00 am  

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