Mo Yan's Delicate Balancing Act

China's Nobel-winning writer has been heavily criticized for being too close to the regime. Yet a close reading of his work shows he's far more complicated than his critics think.

The horror ends when Jiefang watches a Red Guard—Ximen’s own son Jinlong—burn Ximen Ox alive: “Oh, no, Ximen Ox, oh, no, Ximen Ox, who would rather die than stand up and pull a plow for the People’s Commune.” Mo also has Jiefang explicitly note that such individual sacrifice is not in vain: “Ximen Ox died on my dad’s land. What he did went a long way toward clearing the minds of people who had become confused and disoriented during the Cultural Revolution. Ah, Ximen Ox, you became the stuff of legend, a mythical being.”

Jiefang’s emotional commitments make him the most fully evolved character in the novel. After leaving the farming village and becoming a CCP official but trapped in a loveless arranged marriage, Jiefang shows uncommon independence of will in pursuing love with another woman. Although he knows that his refusal to hide his affair as other officials hide theirs will cost him his position and social status, he chooses to live openly with his lover, a choice that his teenage son and friends admire.

AS HIS writing has evolved over the years, Mo has developed a distinctive narrative control. Many of his works continually unsettle the reader by switching among narrators and going back and forth in time. The often-unannounced intercutting of points of view is sometimes so startling as to feel vertiginous, and the use of metafictional narrative layers often heightens the reader’s awareness of his or her own role alongside the author in constructing the fictional world. During the 1980s, after the rise of Deng Xiaoping, Mo and other writers followed the reform-era exhortation to “walk toward the world,” and much has been written about the influence of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, writers for whom Mo has expressed admiration. His fictional worlds have also been compared to the dark absurdity of Kafka and the grand historical vision of Tolstoy.

Yet Mo’s unique narrative style is deeply rooted in Chinese literary traditions. His fantastical passages follow in the tradition of “records of the strange,” a medieval form of “unofficial history” that documented tales of ghosts, fox fairies who take on human form, animals as moral exemplars and other uncanny phenomena. In the epic sweep of his longest novels, Mo also follows the six-hundred-year-old tradition of Chinese “novels-in-chapters” such as Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out pays homage to this form by beginning each of its fifty-eight chapters with a couplet that hints at the chapter’s content.

The combination of traditional Chinese and modernist elements makes Mo’s narratives among the most multilayered in world literature. Throughout Life and Death, seemingly realistic scenes are interrupted by obvious flights of fancy, such as when Ximen Pig sees Mao Zedong sitting on the moon, or when dogs gather to party and drink bottles of beer. Yet Mo’s narrative playfulness goes far beyond surreal plot elements. He suggests the slipperiness of a single knowable truth through his radical storytelling techniques: tales within tales, flashbacks and flash-forwards, dream sequences and self-mocking quasi autobiography.

The novel alternates among a dizzying cast of narrators that includes the five animals, two principal narrators and the fictional character “Mo Yan.” The main narrators turn out to be Blue Face’s son Jiefang and the five-year-old “Big-head,” who remembers his earlier incarnations as a landowner, a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog and a monkey. Although Ximen Nao was middle-aged when executed, by the time he comes back to life as Big-head, he is a wizened old man who has lived through the twentieth century. Embodied as a five-year-old, he has the mind of a mature adult and the memory of his six earlier incarnations. In the narrative present of 2005, the two narrators converse as the fifty-five-year-old Jiefang recalls his youth as a farmer’s son beside the series of loyal farm animals he ultimately recognizes as one soul’s reincarnations.

Mo reveals the date of the narrative present only about a quarter of the way through the novel:

“[Big-head], I can’t let you keep calling me ‘Grandpa.’ . . . if we go back forty years, that is, the year 1965, during that turbulent spring, our relationship was one of a fifteen-year-old youth and a young ox.” . . . I gazed into the ox’s eyes and saw a look of mischief, of naïveté, and of unruliness.

Once this narrative framing becomes clear, the reader understands that many passages from the animals’ points of view are actually Big-head’s memories of his animal incarnations as he speaks to Jiefang. The animals thus possess animal instincts and abilities as well as human knowledge, feelings and thoughts. Ximen Pig even quotes from classical Chinese literature, muses on Ingmar Bergman’s films and shows intense interest in current events.

As the novel approaches its climax, “Mo Yan” the fictionalized author breaks the fourth wall, addresses the reader directly and introduces himself as the final narrator. In his youth this quasi-autobiographical character is frequently made the butt of ridicule, but as a young man he gains a position of modest respectability as a writer and is thus able to help Jiefang during his period of disgrace. Nonetheless, the many mocking references to “Mo Yan” add a wry internal commentary on the novel’s accounts. Perhaps warning the reader not to believe anyone who claims to present the truth, Ximen Pig cautions against taking “Mo Yan” too seriously: