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Mo Yan: 天堂蒜薹之歌 (The Garlic Ballads)

If you have read any of Mo Yan’s later books, you will have an idea what to expect in many of them. They are set in Northeast Gaorni Township, a rural part of China, where most of the population are peasants engaged in agriculture, often with a single crop such as garlic or sorghum. Life is hard, with alcohol and/or sex the only outlets. Though the Cultural Revolution is over, the peasants are still controlled by the local government officials and police, who are generally corrupt, brutal and arbitrary. However, somehow our hero(s)/heroine(s) pull through.

This book follows the same pattern, with one difference. It is thoroughly miserable. All the major characters suffer terribly, with regular beatings, imprisonment and violent death the norm. The officials are corrupt and brutal but so, it appears, are many others. The village economy is based entirely on a single crop, garlic, of which there is suddenly a glut (despite the peasants having been encouraged to grow only garlic), therefore they cannot sell it or, at least, sell it at a reasonable price. The authorities are not only no help but a positive hindrance.

Our main character is Gao Ma. We follow two stories in which he is involved. Both are closely interrelated but with one set some (relatively short) time after the other. Indeed, we first meet him fleeing from the police, who have managed to place a handcuff on one wrist but not on the other. However, this is the later story so, although these two stories are told together, I shall start with the first.

Gao Ma is a single man, working his own fields. He has fallen for Jinju, a neighbour. Unfortunately, her family, the Fangs, are only concerned with their two sons. They wish their sons to marry well and one way to help that is to marry Jinju off. They have a chosen candidate: Liu Shengli, a forty-five-year-old man with an infected windpipe. He’s too sickly to even carry a load of water. Jinju, as a dutiful daughter, is reluctantly going along with their decision.

Gao Ma has different ideas, however. He woos Jinju and she is flattered and interested. They sneak off together. Gao Ma then makes the mistake of going to the Fangs to tell them that he and Jinju want to marry. The result is that he is beaten up and thrown into the street. Jinju is also beaten up for having the temerity to encourage Gao Ma. Gao Ma heads off to Deputy Yang, the village head, complaining about the beating and the arranged marriage (which is illegal in Communist China), However Yang is related to the Fangs. His response is to tell Gao Ma that he is disappointed with the Fang brothers. Had it been him, he would have broken both of Gao Ma’s legs.

Things get worse. The Fang brothers go to his house and steal or destroy virtually everything. Gao Ma and Jinju elope. Gao Ma’s plan is to escape to another part of the country where he has an old army friend who will give him work. They are intercepted at the bus station by Yang and the Fang brothers, who almost kill him. Finally, the Fangs have had enough and say that he can marry Jinju for 10,000 yuan. He does not have 10,000 but Jinju is pregnant so of little use to the Fangs.

Meanwhile, we are following the other story. It seems that there has been an attack on the government offices, which we later learn was because of the inability of the peasants to sell their garlic and the alleged complicity of the government officials in this. Officials are attacked, offices burned down and general mayhem ensues. Several individuals are accused, in particular Gao Ma, Gao Yang and Jinju’s mother. Gao Yang turns out to be a key character. He is the son of former landlords and therefore despised. He is in trouble with the authorities for having buried his mother. If you have read the later 酒国 (The Republic of Wine), you will recall that burial is forbidden and cremation mandatory.

Gao Yang is married. He has a blind nine-year old daughter and his wife is pregnant and later gives birth to a son. However, we mainly follow him in the second story. We first meet him when he is arrested for his involvement in the mayhem at the government offices. He is taken by the police when they go to arrest Gao Ma and it is he who warns Gao Ma, enabling him to escape. Gao Yang is one of Mo Yan’s typical naive but essentially good men who gets caught up in the system and mistreated by others. We get numerous examples of both in this book, particularly during his time in prison, not least when he has to share a cell with a man who has already been sentenced to death and therefore has nothing to lose.

Much of the second story involves the prison sentences of the various protagonists and their sufferings there, though we also follow the events that led to them being sent to prison. Clearly their lives are barely worth living. I’m not afraid of dying. It can’t be worse than living. And just think of the food I’ll save the nation, says one character. Another one even says to the police I want you to shoot me!

A wedding of two dead people, numerous deaths and injuries, police brutality, massive corruption, fighting within families and the inevitable money problems all pile on to make this a thoroughly grim novel, with all the main characters either ending up dead or substantially worse off than they were. I cannot say that I enjoyed this novel, as there is little redeeming, Indeed, death is the only redemption for some of them. It does, I suppose, show how grim life is for peasants in rural China. I am surprised that it was published in Beijing for surely the government would not want the world to see the awfulness of life in their country.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by Zuo jia chu ban she
First published in English in 1995 by Arcade