The contrast being Korean author O Chonghui’s “River of Fire” (just reviewed) and Chinese author Mo Yan’s short story collection “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh” is immense. Each deal with deprivation, survival and autuocracy, but the former tastes like bad medicine and the latter like sweetened bad medicine.
The preface to this short story collection should be read. It sheds life on Mo Yan’s life in China through its turbulent periods. You get the impression that as in the lead short story, Mo Yan, like Shifu will do anything for a laugh. Comedy is a very serious business.
Mo Yan has a good understanding of his craft. He is a story teller, not a writer of great “literary” talent. The same could be said of Dickens. It is a great talent to tell stories, particularly when the underlying theme needs to be masked. A 2012 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, his ability to meld folklore, fantasy, tradition, and political and social commentary into simple stories has not gone unnoticed.
“Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh” is about a model worker’s effort to survive. The ending is weaker than then the body of the story which is fast paced.
“Man and Beast” is about post-war survival of an elderly Chinese soldier who remains in Japan not knowing the war has ended. It reflects on war, and the tortured relationship between the Japanese and the Chinese.
“Soaring” is a fanciful folktale about Chinese arranged marriage. It can be compared with a Garcia Marquez tale.
“Iron Child” is a brutal fable. It is a story about the Cultural Revolution and the disintegration of family. The deprivation is as deep if not deeper than that expressed in O Chonghui’s story, but its fanciful style is the honey that makes it easy to take.
“Love Story” is also from the Cultural Revolution. A love story of displacement, age, and class, it transforms negative circumstances into positive result. Whether it is love is another matter.
“Shen Garden” is also about relationships. It is a fractured one, as is the common theme in O Chonghui’s “River of Fire”. Here there is temporal integration, not disintegration.
“Abandoned Child” is the closest Mo Yan comes to explicit editorialism about Chinese culture and China’s one child policy. Like “Iron Child” it is a strong and at times brutal tale. It is hard to believe he would not have received a reprimmand from the government because of this story, unless it was written after China abandoned the policy.
Mo Yan is an author well worth seeking out. From a writer’s perspective it proves that “necessity is the mother of invention.” O Chonghui, although having the difficulty of being a female writer, writing from a woman’s perspective in a male dominant society, was not at risk of being prohibited from writing. Mo Yan having suffered personally from poverty and the constraints of the Cultural Revolution needed to be more inventive in his style. As a lawyer it reminded me of the North Carolinian Senator Sam Ervin, who throughout his clever questioning during the Watergate Hearings, just referred to himself as a simple country lawyer. Watch out for the simple and excessively humble.