Book Reviews

Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Red Sorghum is a novel about the brutal terror, pillage and rape that innocent civilians had to face in the dark days of the Chinese civil war and the Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s.

In the 1920s, China descended into a civil war which was fought between the KMT-led government of the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China, leaving the country divided and weak. It was in the middle of this that Japan invaded China in the 1930s, initiating the precursor to the Second World War. The country was devastated by poverty and organised crime. Red Sorghum is a novel about the brutal terror, pillage, and rape that thousands of innocent civilians had to face in these dark days. 

“With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright-red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your unfilial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!”

Told through a first-person narrative, the book centres around resistance fighters during the Sino-Japenese war and the warring Chinese factions. Spanning three generations, it is a tale of a sedan barrier cum bandit cum war hero and his relationship with the bride he is transporting from her father’s house to her marital one. Yu Zhan’ao is a wild, audacious man who does everything from pissing in the winery’s precious wine to emerging as a hero fighting against the Japanese during World War II. He is a combination of both, good and evil, equally cold-blooded and soft-hearted. Dai Feng’lian, the grandmother of the narrator and Zhan’ao’s lover, is feisty and an anti-Japanese heroine. In a chronicle of massacres unleashed by the Japanese forces the love affair between Grandma and Grandpa, and the story of their love child, the narrator’s father, is what lends a sense of startling reality to the mayhem- the continued unfolding of the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times. 

To begin with, the book is a little difficult to read – it is fragmented and the montages seem disjointed. But as the book progresses and the bit and pieces fall into place you begin to find a poetic melody. The story begins to tug at your heart emotionally and eventually, very strongly. The unbridled barbarism in the novel might leave you feeling squeamish. I had a tough time reading through scenes where Uncle is skinned alive, Second Grandma is raped and dogs feast on putrefying corpses. 

“The river was filled with water as black as blood; the fields were covered with sorghum as red as blood”

The book is suffused with symbolism. In fact, in the first few chapters of the book, red sorghum is everywhere. In every nook and cranny and corner of the page, there is the crop. It stops being an element of nature and takes on a divine quality, so much that you may begin to develop a cloying feeling with the abundance of its usage on the pages. Yet, you know this is the soul of the story. Sorghum provides food and shelter and safety and survival. There’s a bond between the people and the land. It represents tenacity, vitality and an unyielding spirit. It is also a symbol of fortitude and the continuation of life. The red stands for several things – passion, rage, bloodshed, nationalism, communism and violence – themes that pervade throughout the book. 

Through his fictional narrator in Red Sorghum, who is a product of the latter half of the 20th century, Mo Yan makes us all complicit in this particularly tragic history. The characters in the book are all deeply flawed and thus, deeply human. Perhaps that is why you find yourself getting so attached to them, to the land, to all the heroics and horrors doled out to every man, woman and child. 

This is Mo Yan’s first novel and among his best-known works. I read the English version of this Chinese novel, translated by Howard Goldblatt. Mo Yan was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 and the academy described his work as ‘hallucinatory realism’ that merges ‘folk tales, history and contemporary’. Red Sorghum is an excellent example of this. His novel contains hints of his own personal life. After dropping out of school, Yan became a cowherd and then, at the age of 20, he joined the army. He chose to base the book in the Shandong province’s Northeast Gaomi Township which also happens to be his home town. This book then is both a historical fiction and a cultural history. Mo Yan (whose real name is Guan Moye) is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His pseudonym, which means ‘don’t speak’, was born out of a warning his parents had given him to not speak his mind when outside, in the face of China’s political situation during the 1950s. Another reason why he decided to adopt this name is because his writings are prone to a reinterpretation of China’s political and sexual history.

“I doubt that even the provincial party secretary could have told which of them belonged to communists, nationalists, japanese soldiers, puppet and civilians. Skulls all had exact same shape, been thrown into heap”

First serialised in various magazines in 1986, the book comprises of five volumes, each with an interesting title – Red Sorghum, Sorghum Wine, Dog Ways, Sorghum Funeral and Strange Death. Even before the serialisations were published into a complete novel, Mo Yan was approached by the director, Zhang Yimou, proposing to turn the book into a film. 

Red Sorghum is a family saga with a broad historical sweep. Mo Yan draws inspiration for his works from the Chinese culture and the environment he has been immersed in. Non-Linear storytelling, interspersed with flashbacks, filled with a wild imagination, a page-turning narration and a sharp language, is what makes this book so highly acclaimed in literary circles. Amy Tan compares Mo Yan to the likes of Kundera and Marquez.

This book is a brilliant socio-political commentary that is visceral and full of bawdy humour. And yet, this being the story about the power of life and endurance, a strange magical beauty suffuses the novel, depicted on a stunning backdrop of rural China by a storyteller who holds back nothing and speaks his mind freely. 

Have you read this book? What other Mo Yan’s works do you like and would recommend we pick up next? Let us know!

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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