Red Sorghum - discussion

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Red Sorghum - discussion

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nov 30, 2012, 9:46 am

This thread is for reviews and discussion of Mo Yan's novel Red Sorghum: A Novel of China.

Please flag your post with the word "SPOILERS" if appropriate.

dec 1, 2012, 8:28 am

Here is the review I posted on my reading threads and the book page.

At the end of this grim book, which jumps back and forth in time but mainly focuses on the period just before and during the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Shandong area (and more) of China, the essentially contemporary narrator, who has barely intruded himself into the story, mourns the loss of the past, as epitomized by the now hybrid sorghum covering the area where his family used to live.

As I stand amid the dense hybrid sorghum, I think of surpassingly beautiful scenes that will never again appear. In the deep autumn of the eighth month under a high, magnificently clear sky, the land is covered by sorghum that forms a glittering sea of blood. If the autumn rains are heavy, the fields turn into a swampy sea, the red tips of sorghum rising above the muddy yellow water, appealing stubbornly to the blue sky above. When the sun comes out, the surface of the sea shimmers, and heaven and earth are painted with extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily majestic colors." pp. 385-359

Although, as here, Mo Yan beautifully captures the magnificence of the natural world, as well as (elsewhere) the animals that inhabit it, the preceding 358 pages tell a story of trickery, rivalry, violence, and atrocities that show the depths of what human beings are capable of. Essentially, the narrator is telling the story of his grandparents and his father; throughout the novel they are referred to as Granddad, Grandma, Father, Little Auntie, Second Grandma, etc., so the reader is always aware of the family connections, even though the narrator is largely invisible. The reader first encounters Father as a teenager in 1939, about to follow his father, Granddad, a leader of one of several private armies in the area, into battle against the Japanese invaders, and ultimately also against some of the other armed groups . But soon the story flashes back to Grandma's journey as a teenaged girl to the man she is being forced to marry, rumored to be a leper like his father. The story of how she falls in love with Grandpa instead (he is one of the men carrying her traditional sedan chair to her new husband's home, although also sometimes a bandit) and what ensues, leading her to become the owner and manager of a prospering sorghum wine distillery, is both funny and violent. As the novel continues, it jumps back in forth in time, and includes the stories of a variety of other characters; the reader has to pay attention to keep track of who's who and when events are happening.

Throughout the novel, Mo Yan illustrates Chinese village life in the era of warring bandits, which includes both horrifying and humorous events, as well as the atrocities of war, especially those perpetrated by the Japanese who employed a scorched earth policy in the region known, according to Wikipedia, as the "Three Alls" policy -- "kill all, burn all, loot all." Some of the details are hard to read.

This is not only a very earthy book, with a variety of sexual relationships and jealousies, lots of blood, graphic injuries, mud, animal activities and wastes, and more, and a very violent book, but also a book with many lyrical passages like the one quoted above and in some ways a mythical one, with animals both helping and demonically possessing people, and even fighting people as an organized army. The red sorghum itself is almost a character, shielding lovers and warriors, providing sustenance, symbolizing the natural order of the region as it resists invaders. This is a difficult book to read, but one well worth reading.

As a final note, I was interested to read a translator's note, especially in light of some discussions here on LT about English translations of Chinese novels generally being abridged, that said that the translation was based on a Taipei edition, "which restores cuts made in the Mainland Chinese edition" and that also "some deletions have been made, with the author's approval."

dec 4, 2012, 12:00 pm

And here is my review from early 2012:

10. Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
First published in Chinese 1987
English translation by Howard Goldblatt 1993


"Over decades that seem but a moment in time, lines of scarlet figures shuttled among the sorghum stalks to weave a vast human tapestry. They killed, they looted, and they defended their country in a valiant, stirring ballet that makes us unfilial descendants who now occupy the land pale by comparison. Surrounded by progress, I feel a nagging sense of our species' regression." Thus the narrator of Mo Yan's novel states the theme of Red Sorghum.

The setting for the novel is the author's native village of Northeast Gaomi Township in the province of Shandong near the tip of the Chinese peninsula that points toward Korea. Most of the events in the novel take place between 1923 and 1941. During the first part of that period the region was loosely governed by one of China's many warlords. In 1937 the Japanese occupied the province, leading to years of violent repression and resistance.

The narrative timeline is complex. The first-person narrator revisits his home town in the 1980s to construct his family's history. He begins his account in 1939 as his father, a teenage boy at the time, is preparing to participate in a partisan ambush of a Japanese convoy. This battle will be the central event in the novel. The story then shifts back to 1923 for the marriage of the narrator's paternal grandmother. These shifts in time occur frequently throughout the novel as though the principal characters are remembering their past, with the 1939-1941 timeline being the principal one.

Though the characters' proper names are given, they are chiefly referred to by relationship as "Granddad," "Grandma," "Father," "Little Auntie," etc., thus reaffirming the narrator's invisible presence. Grandma, a remarkably strong and free-spirited woman, inherits a distillery while still a teenage girl and proves more than equal to the task of managing it. Granddad, a large and violent man, begins his career while still a boy by murdering his mother's lover, then alternates between manual labor and banditry until emerging as a feared guerrilla warrior after the Japanese invasion. The relationship between these two is both passionate and tempestuous.

Violence and passion prevail in this story of remarkable heroism, brutality, treachery and suffering. When the Chinese partisan bands aren't fighting the Japanese, they are fighting each other for control of weapons and food supplies. The primitive, defiant individualism and amorality of Granddad and his contemporaries brings to mind the Old West of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

Mo Yan's style of writing verges on magical realism, with its sensuality and capriciousness, but there is nothing disarmingly "magic" about it. The environment is a real as it can be, with every scene oozing blood, sweat, mud, pus, sap or semen. Red Sorghum is a harrowing, earthy and unforgettable immersion in the violent and tragic lives of its characters.

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