This time we’re starting our new Chinese novel, Frog by Mo Yan (莫言的”蛙”), which recently won the Nobel Prize. It can be purchased here in the original Chinese:
The English translation can also be preordered here:
The translation is due out in January, 2015, so we’ll spike the ball a little for Howard Goldblatt, who is Mo Yan’s usual translator and legendary in the translation field. Of course, Frog tackles the brutal and controversial subject of China’s one child policy, so I don’t look for it to be comfortable reading. I haven’t read any of Mo Yan’s other work, though a lot of it has been translated into English and is available at Amazon.
This novel has had quite a bit of ink spilled about it when it won the award. Most of it was discussing whether Mo Yan sold out by using his talents to support the Chinese government as opposed to the dissident artist community who have taken a more adversarial position with the government, and some discussion was regarding whether his use of language was really that good vis-a-vis the traditions of Chinese writing. But when I got my copy of the novel, I was surprised to see it had a really interesting structure that was not mentioned in much of the discussion in the wake of the award.
The story is broken into five parts with every section beginning with a letter from a character named Tadpole explaining some things to a man who is apparently his writing teacher. None of the parts or subchapters have titles, and the final part of the book is in the form of a nine act play. Mostly the book is supposed to be about Tadpole’s aunt who is a village gynecologist. He calls her Gugu, but that is just the Chinese term for one’s father’s sister or sometimes any woman one meets of that age cohort. I’ll just call her Aunt. So far she has no personal name, and we may not be given one.
Tadpole talks a bit in this first letter about his aunt, meeting with other admires of literature in his hometown, how his aunt has inspired other works of art, and his goal to write a play about her. Frog imagery comes up here in the form of a metaphor for how he wants to write his spectacular work of art: like a frog patiently waiting for an insect to come by to eat. This is reported to be the advice of his mentor, the recipient of the letter. He also mentions the extravagance that he is writing all of this to him by hand with pen and paper in the computer age and how enjoyable that experience is. The story is told in first person narrative, and even the chapters are addressed at times to this man he is writing the letters to.
The first part has fifteen subchapters, and the story begins by focusing on Tadpole’s village, which has an interesting tradition in naming their children after body parts. Tadpole mentions that the younger generation of parents don’t like this tradition and now name their children after characters on foreign TV shows from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. He goes on to describe some of the families in this village, which includes children who were his schoolmates. Bi Chen (Nose Chen) has children named Er Chen (Ear Chen) and Mei Chen (Eyebrow Chen), while Jiao Wang (Foot Wang) has a son Gan Wang (Liver Wang) and a daughter Dan Wang (Gall Bladder Wang). Another character who comes up later in the novel that I noticed who is mentioned here is Sai Yuan (Cheek Yuan). The woman Tadpole eventually marries is an exception to this rule because her father was a literary man, and her name is Renmei Wang, which means something like Benevolent Beauty. The story of these kids is told in the first subchapter, which is set in 1960 when Tadpole starts elementary school. It is a time of starvation where they must eat coal. This first subchapter spends a fair amount of time describing these families, the mules they interact with and their experience eating coal, and it has a record-length paragraph of four or five pages long in the middle of it.
It’s important to point out here that the time period of 1958 to 1961 in China was the time of a big famine caused by the Great Leap Forward estimated to have killed anywhere from 18 to 45 million people. Here is a 77 page study, “The Institutional Causes of China’s Great Famine, 1959-1961” by Xin Meng, Nancy Qian and Pierre Yared, done on the causes of this famine by some researchers at Columbia for readers who want to dig a little deeper into the background:
The second subchapter continues briefly with the history of Bi Chen, then abruptly turns its attention to Tadpole’s illustrious aunt, who by 1953 has begun to work as a midwife. There were apparently some misconceptions about this practice and some kind of clash between new and old ways of handling childbirth, so the midwives were called “老娘婆,” which could be a reference to a classical Ming Dynasty novel, “世姻缘传” (Xingshi Yinyuan Zhuan, or Marriage Destinies to Awaken the World). Here it is used in a very derogatory manner. Here is some background on the original reference:
This name conjures up almost a monster in this novel, and here is part of the rather fun if garish description:
At the mention of these “old midwives,” my aunt would grind her teeth in hatred. My aunt said she didn’t know how many infants and mothers died at the hands of these witches. What my aunt described to us left a horrifying impression. These “old midwives” seemed to all keep their fingernails long, an unwholesome green light flickered in their eyes, and out of their mouths puffed a stench. (My translation.)
Tadpole admits that later he understood her views better when he had more knowledge of women’s physiology.
Now, 1953 is another important year in Chinese history under the Communists. It was the beginning of the class struggle against landlords and merchants, which brought some iconoclastic activity against art and architecture symbolizing old China, and it was the start of the first Five Year Plan. The date is only referenced in passing here since the second subchapter moves from some background on Bi Chen to Tadpole’s aunt’s midwifery, then it turns to discuss anecdotes about their grandfather who was a Communist military doctor of heroic stature. It mentions his grandfather’s mentor was Norman Bethune, a historical figure I have never heard of, but there are some details on him here:
The novel meanders a bit here over slice of life details, which is common for any high literary novel and is to be expected. It’s a little more conversational, resembling an oral history rather than a strictly focused story at this point. Many of the characters we meet in these chapters will turn up later in the book from what I noticed glancing through it, and the text jumps around quite a bit to different years, so keeping track of the timeline might be a bit of a challenge as we continue to read it.
Part one of a four part series.