Friday, April 11, 2014

Expression against oppression (Mo Yan's "The Garlic Ballads")

This appeared in "Republica" daily on 11 April 2014.


The state is supposed to protect its citizens and provide for their basic needs. Citizens agree to be ruled so that they can enjoy free and easy life. But many a time the state encroaches upon the freedom of the individual. When this encroachment proves oppressive to a large number of people, they burst into violence. The state reacts to this violence with counter-violence.

The 2012 Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s novel The Garlic Ballads narrates the story of a state-citizen tussle leading to tragic outcomes. Translated into English from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, this novel tells the story of post-Maoist China which still has myriads of problems. It is a political novel that presents the bitter political reality of rustic China. The painful account of garlic farmers in Paradise County touches the heart of the reader to its core. 

The peasants of Paradise County live their arduous lives with occasional grunts, planting garlic in plenty and nothing else. The Chinese Communist government has ordained them to do so. But when there is surplus of garlic, the government refuses to buy it, to the horror of these peasants. When local officers treat them badly, they burst into anger and vandalize government property. All hell breaks loose. There are arrests and court proceedings. The peasants have to pay heavy prices for the transgression of law.

The story is told in a non-linear manner. Individual stories of Gao Yang, Gao Ma, Fourth Aunt Fang, Jinju and some other characters run alternatively in succeeding chapters, often crisscrossing the narrative. Each chapter begins with a ballad sung by the blind bard, Zhang Kou, who strums his erhu and incites people to rebel against the corrupt government via ballads. He functions as the chorus in the novel. Towards the end of the story, the authorities gag him, put an electric prod on his lips, and insult him. This is symbolic of dictatorship trying its best to suppress the people’s voice. The ballad in the beginning also marks the passing of time.

Class differences in the supposedly classless society of China are depicted in the novel. The growing numbers of red capitalists (with greed and corruption as their characteristics) look down on the true proletariats. They live a life of luxury while poor people starve. There is an inherent flaw in communist governance, the novel seems to suggest.

Mo Yan’s style in the novel has been called ‘hallucinatory realism’. Gao Yang’s fever-induced visions in the jail (the horrific conditions of prison are shown brilliantly) and Jinju’s vision that the fetus inside her womb is struggling to come out serve as examples of this hallucinatory realism. This technique seems to have been employed as a means of satirizing state oppression. In fact, the searing realistic picture painted by the author satirizes totalitarian government scathingly. No wonder the novel has been banned in China.

Since the novel is set in a village, certain peasant values have been incorporated in the novel. The reader finds organic harmony among villagers, their beliefs in supernaturalism (ghosts roam in Paradise County towards the end, and Jinju’s dead body is married off to the dead body of another guy), their strict adherence to customs, mores and traditions. Love marriage between Jinju and Gao Ma earns the ire of Jinju’s parents.

The novel realistically establishes the discourse of the body. Body is the site where different things, mostly negative, happen. The body is associated with disgust here. The characters fart, retch, belch, defecate, and urinate in public. The police brutally inflict torture on rebellious peasants and hurt their dignity. It seems the writer employs bodily disgust to point his fingers at the disgusting reality of the totalitarian government. Olfactory disgust in the form of smelly garlic is one of the novel’s motifs.

The incorporation of jokes and anecdotes in the narrative has enhanced its readability. The peasants live by the stories and it also works as balm for them when they face painful condition in jail. The mention of the Hindu god of death, Yama, makes it easy for Hindu readers to connect to the story.
Mo Yan has been compared to some great novelists of the West. I found Dostoevsky and Joseph Heller’s influence in this novel. The impassioned speech of an ex-soldier in the court and the whole court proceeding seems to reflect the famous court scene of Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov. The run to freedom by Gao Ma towards the end echoes Yossarian’s run in Heller’s Catch-22. The oppressive treatment of puny individuals by overbearing administration hints at Kafkaesque influence.

Because of its successful experiment in narrative technique and its emotive story, The Garlic Ballads deserves a must-read star. This is the best novel that has appeared in recent decades. Nepalis have to read this novel to know about the ugly face of Communist totalitarianism, as Mo Yan narrates the stories of his native People’s Republic of China.

Title    :     The Garlic Ballads
Author    :     Mo Yan
Genre    :     Fiction, in English
Publisher    :     Arcade Publishing,         Reprint Edition
Published    :     November 1, 2012
Pages    :     304, Paperback

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