The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan

 G-ballads-2“Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands.”
~Mo Yan

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 of 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, lend a rich aura, and at times a graver import, to the narrative. 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 of the story is abrupt and warped in structure, but startling juxtapositions and digressions keep feeding the undercurrents of passion, political creed, violence and putrefaction. 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


  1. Stunning review. I must read it. Achebe’s “Arrow of God” kept coming to mind – but it has no bearing whatsoever on the novel reviewed – so I have no clue why it kept coming into my head. These “Garlic Ballads” sound pretty gritty stuff…

    1. I have read the first book of the series, Things Fall Apart, and it is an unforgettable story. I’d also begun reading the second book but something intervened. Things Fall Apart, is a very different work from The Garlic Ballads, even if gritty in its own way. It is perhaps the conflict between the locals and colonial powers that reminds you of Arrow of God. Mo Yan might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he cannot be dismissed easily.

  2. You’ve done a thorough review but I would restrict myself from reading the book. I have a feeling it will give me nightmares. 😦

    1. There is no guarantee the future might be any less barabaric, if not more. Who would have imagined animals like ISIS would exist in 21st century? Do read Mo Yan but remember, he can be more gross and grisly than you may be willing to digest.

  3. An excellent review. I enjoy reading Mo Yan…well, “enjoy” isn’t quite the word. But you’ve convinced me this is a good– even poetic—rendition of a certain reality, and I think I’ll go for it.

    1. Cynthia, Mo Yan is as poetic as he is cruel. There are passages of such unforgettable intensity in this book the likes of which you don’t come across too often. Do go ahead!

  4. Hello My dear friend… Thank you for the brilliant review. A book written 28 years back and I am yet to read it. Your review has urged me to add it to my reading list and I am hoping to lay my hands on it soon. I once read it somewhere that The Garlic Ballads was written in 35days.. it must be the passion that was pouring out in form of words. Interestingly, Mo Yan means “Don’t Speak” in Chinese. There must be a great story behind it for using it as a pen name.

    1. Hello, Jyothi! Your words are like a mountain stream in this parched corner. Your visits are cherished. Mo Yan is certainly one of a kind. He seems to have fits of writing ending in books, like the one in question. It is also rumoured he prefers to write with a brush rather than a keyboard. He surely breaths passion onto the pages of his works, at times it is gasoline. How ironic that his nom de plume means don’t speak, an overkill of oxymoron. You may want to read my review of his other book, The Red Sorghum.

  5. I generally don’t read reviews before I pick up a book. I’d like to do that after I’m done with the book; to see what the different opinions out there are, and how different they are from mine. But I could read your book reviews before I’ve read the book you’re talking about; just for the pure joy of reading your writing. Honest, USP. 🙂

    Today, you make me want to read Mo Yan and this book of his that might have been a very heavy one if not for the way the author has sprinkled some magic here and there. And it looks like the book is a window into another culture and another world altogether.

    1. Divya, the master bookshelf I have now has two rows of books. I usually give the books I am shifting to the rear flank a hard look; I question myself if I will have the time to read them ever again. There is already a battalion of untouched volumes waiting to be read. So I wrote a review of the The Garlic Ballads before I pushed it out of my sight, lest I forget. As you rightly observed, it “is a window into another culture and another world altogether.” I almost didn’t post it in this space.

      Your trust in my writing is an honour I cherish.

  6. I haven’t read Mo Yan. Reading your lucid review reminded me of Maxim Gorky’s writings which I used to read a lot in the childhood days. Your lucid writing will force many to read this book. However, these days I just can’t bear myself to read about the defilement and degradation of human dignity. When will this greed, tyranny and oppression end? With each passing era, it only changes its form and we are presented with the modern day oppressors. 😦

    1. Mo Yan is on an altogether different plain of reality compared to Gorky. While despair is deep rooted in the works of the either author, Mo Yan’s realism is crude and brutal, at times crass, and revoltingly graphic. However, Mo Yan frequently employs magical-realism as a clever counterbalance to the excesses of violence manifesting the landscape he chooses to represent. And yet, regardless of the charges lobbed at the Chinese author, his portrayal of greed and tyranny are among the best in the world and should open the eyes of humanity. Don’t read him though if you don’t want to agitate your heart.

  7. Returning from a vacation, I realise I’ve missed a lot of engaging writing. As riveting as this review is, as has always been the case, I am not sure if I am ready to push myself to read Mo Yan as yet. I’ ve skipped the pebble over Chinese stories with Pearl S Buck only. That’s how handicapped I am. Till then this gem of a review will suffice.

  8. You are a gentle reader, my friend. I guess you will not miss much by skipping the book in question. Read Doctor Zhivago instead. And, hey, thanks a ton!

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