Mo Yan “Red Sorghum: A Novel of China”: The Red, Red, Red Sorghum Fields

July 29, 2013

Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way swiftly, shall we? Mo Yan is the 2012 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature. I’m not going to get into the political hoopla about the writer, I’m not nearly well versed enough in the finer points of the debate to pick that apart – but it’s an interesting choice for a variety of reasons, and I’m humbly taking on the literary aspects in accordance with my small skills.

Red Sorghum is one of those huge, sweeping family tales that spans three generations of a clan living and working in the Shandong province’s Northeast Gaomi Township where they grow sorghum and make wine. The setting is decidedly rural and we’re invited in to the backwater towns of China in a way I’ve never seen before.

The story is framed in by a first-person narrator who is home for a visit in 1980 as he begins reconstructing the family’s history. He takes us back to 1939 and tells about how his father was involved in a partisan attack on a Japanese convoy. Then he goes further back to the marriage of his grandmother.

We then follow the young woman who is being carried to her wedding to the local distillery owner’s son, who also happens to be a leaper. The tone is set as something of a mixture between brutal realism and lyrical beauty. The bride is dressed in the finest of clothes, but the litter she is carried in is dirty and musty. The men carrying her are trying to make her seasick so she will throw up and disgrace herself. One of the carriers becomes the young lady’s lover when her leaper-husband is murdered three days after the wedding.

There is a very acute mix of cruelty, blood, violence, sundry atrocities, blatant sexuality and drunkenness, as well as a depiction of the random brutality of the war with the Japanese and the trouble with the government and other officials. The violence is graphic, to say the least. There’s also an element of superstitious magic, which corresponds to some kind of magical realism, though personally I prefer Marquez.

This is all as it should be, and very attractive at that. It’s not like this isn’t literature in a very real sense, because let’s face it, you don’t get the Nobel Prize just for being a contender. It’s all there, the big cinematic scope and the attention to detail and the characters with their flaws and gifts and the lyrical descriptions of the huge acres of flowering sorghum and the smell of the distillery and the sailor-mouthed soldiers who curse and carouse.

The only problem is – I just don’t like it. I want to. I feel I ought to, what with it being internationally renowned and acclaimed. The problem lies with me, I am well aware of that. I can’t hit upon a toehold in the narrative. I don’t find any of the characters particularly interesting and I’ve always had issues with the whole “broad sweep of narrative covering three generations” thing. It’s more than just a cultural disconnect, because that’s something I actually go actively looking for when the mood strikes me, but there’s something in the authorial voice that makes it too easy for me to step away from the depictions. The same goes for the violence, it’s not like it upsets my delicate sensibilities, so that’s not the issue. Fifty pages into the novel I want to embargo the word “sorghum”… and maybe the colour red while I’m at it. Being that those are two of the central themes and devices that would probably be counter productive.

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. (Moy Yan) says the narrator.

Meanwhile I have no problem acknowledging that Mo Yan is good. There is enough diversity that you can sense the influence of oral narration and a huge cultural context that I don’t have the code for, while it still keeps close enough company with its main voice that it hits on the common major narrative themes of love and war and jealousy and humanity. It’s good. It is. Even so – I still just don’t like it. But that is my shortcoming, and I’ll just have to leave it at that.



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