“Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands.” ~Mo Yan
But can they?
Sidestepping the polemic surrounding the Nobel citation of Mo Yan, and the seeming incompatibility of the Chinese tongue with English hoes and spades, I prefer to take the stance of the reader who is caught in the whorl of narrative, vivid, vicious and vivacious as it is, flowing from the pen of the interpreter, Howard Goldblatt, variously charged with both embellishing and dampening the strains of the original score.
The peasants of the Paradise County have been mandated to plant garlic, which they have been told will end their woes, make them rich, get them new clothes, new homes, and even a new bride. They throw in their meagre riches to the promised salvation and drudge and toil for months. A windfall harvest follows causing a deluge of garlic all-around, stunning the rulers and the ruled alike. Warehouses fill up and close their doors; serpentine queues of carts carrying garlic stall and fume on roads. Hefty taxes are imposed on the peasants for lugging around the crop, and the state rubs salt deeper into the wounds by refusing to purchase the produce. Left with nothing but reeking garlic bulbs in their fields and homes, the peasants are driven to penury and starvation, and eventually an uprising, culminating into ransacking and torching down of the county offices. The retribution from the government is barbaric and grim. People are arrested regardless of their health, age, sex and guilt and subjected to gruesome torture. However, the relentless saga of institutionalised oppression is tempered with tender stories of love and bond that spawn between some of the characters in the story.
Gao Yang is the first one we are set to meet, a man humiliated since childhood for the fact he had belonged to the condemned class of ‘landlords’. He has been made to drink urine and kicked around most of his life to complete his re-education prescribed by the cultural revolution. He is arrested at the outset and subjected to gut-wrenching torture with nightsticks and electric prods for being part of the mob that violated the communist offices, and also because he is a witness to a death caused by reckless driving of a corrupt administrator. Gao Yang yelps, howls, faints and stumbles repeatedly, and even as tears run down his cheeks, he keeps reminding himself he is not really crying. You will be wise not to look for redemptions when reading Mo Yan, but I have to admit his description of the proceedings of a torture can be the meanest debasement a member of the mankind can be put through, a hark back perhaps to the dark days of slavery. Savour this: A powerful shudder wracked him. The blood flowed sluggishly through his veins and he felt himself shrinking: his testicles retreated into his body and his guts knotted up. Chilled drops of urine on his thighs informed him that he was peeing his pants, and he tried to hold it back…. An icy stream of urine ran down his leg, soaked his buttocks, and washed the calloused soles of his feet as he knelt. He actually heard it slosh around his crotch.
It turns out the police is also looking out for Gao Ma, the chief author of the revolt and also the love story that enlivens the sordid villatic saga. He is also the face of revolt, not afraid to vocalise his contempt for the hollow socialism. For the moment though, Gao Yang’s warning call allows him to escape the policemen. Gao Ma had set his heart on young Jinju, the neighbourhood girl, who was already betrothed against her wishes to an invalid in a wicked pact between two families. Her ageing, lame brother who would have otherwise died unmarried, would now get a beautiful bride in exchange. It is remarkable how the girls alone are set to be the sacrificial lambs at both ends of the contract.
Jinju falls for the pleas of Gao Ma and runs away with him but the couple is cornered at a bus stop after the briefest union in a neighbouring county. Her brothers nearly kill Gao Ma in a murderous rage; Jinju too is thrashed about by the males of her household. Eventually, Jinju’s family strikes a pact whereby Gao Ma is required to pay ten thousand yuans to take Jinju as bride. Needless to say, Gao Ma is counting on his garlic crop to give them the steep dowry.
Mo Yan is a clever craftsman who employs complex methods to enliven the already riveting narrative. He digs deep into Chinese culture and consciousness to create a credible, pulsating cosmos. He gathers speed on wheels of naked realism but takes off on wings of illusion where the runway of language tapers off. But no matter how exotic the device, hallucinatory realism lends a novel dimension to moments fraught with crises, tragedy and ecstasy in a way no realism may ever touch, like the background score in a cinema. No wonder some the finest moments of the book soar on the wings magical realism, the episode where the lovers consummate in a field of jute plants, or the episode where the vitriolic foetus of Jinju brawls with his mother to let him out:
Gao Ma’s scowling son roared, “Let me out of here! Let me out this minute! What kind of mother wouldn’t even let her own son out?”
Her eyes bled. Pushing away the cool head of the chestnut colt, she said, “Don’t come out child. Mother knows what’s best for you. What do you plan to do out here? Do you have any idea how tough life is?”
Symbols and motifs, real and imagined, are woven well into the storyline. While the chestnut colt is an angel of solace and appears at points overflowing with emotions, Gao Zhileng’s parakeets are the very embodiment of evil. They have got curved beaks and topknots in their crowns. They eat meat, drink blood, and suck brains. The timeline in story is abrupt and warped in structure, but undercurrents of passion, political creed, violence and putrefaction feed off unusual juxtapositions and digressions. The book opens with an extract from a ballad by Zhang Kou, Paradise County’s blind minstrel. It sounds innocuous enough as a stepping stone to the story, exhorting the fellow villagers to revive the glory days of Emperor Liu of the Great Han. But the oxymoron of the piece is hard to miss when we are told how the emperor commanded the citizens of the country to plant garlic for tribute. This dichotomy of force and freewill seems to have hovered upon the Chinese ethos down the past millennia. Indeed, there have been voices of dissidence, as has been amply captured by the book in the character of Gao Ma who is perhaps a precursor to the Tank Man of the Tiananmen Square.
Further in the story, ballads of Zhang Kou assume a greater role, not unlike the chorus in Greek tragedies. Even though the minstrel is not always there physically, as the story flits back and forth on swaths of time, reality and illusion, his words set the course and motive of the journey at the beginning of each chapter, and at times tweak the mast midway. It is a device binding both readers and the characters of the story, who sing and dance to its trilling, and are driven to plant garlic, revolt against the rot and bigotry, make love, make enemies and mourn the fallen.
Based on a true incident, The Garlic Ballads is a saga of impotence and gullibility of the peasants set against betrayal and barbaric repression of a corrupt state. It is a lesson how a section of the society will remain dirt poor when the political see-saw is reversed and sabre of power merely changes hands, a phenomenon currently underway in a nation, a not too distant a neighbour of China.
‘The Garlic Ballads’ by Mo Yan
Translated into English by Howard Goldblatt