cover image Red Sorghum: A Novel of China

Red Sorghum: A Novel of China

Mo Yan, trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Viking, $23.50 (368p) ISBN 978-0-670-84402-9

In the way that Chinese landscape painting reshapes the viewer's perspective by offering not one but many focal points, this singularly forceful contemporary Chinese novel reinvents the notion of chronology. The narrator, a young man from the provinces, relates the intertwined histories of the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s and of his parents and grandparents. A few key episodes serve as recurrent motifs: murders counterpoint battlefield massacres; women are raped by their saviors and by enemy soldiers; the community leader punishes gamblers and thieves with floggings, while the Japanese flog a saboteur as a preamble to skinning him alive. Mo Yan turns these events over and over, introducing each a fragment at a time and exploring their significance as they pass from one character's experience into another's memory. At first Yan's insistence on graphic and gruesome descriptions and his interest in bodily functions make the novel rough going. Eventually, however, his emphasis on the ignoble becomes a protest against the universal tendency to idealize the past. Instead, Mo Yan recreates a world defined by brutality and extends its horizons past wars and cultural revolutions; the ultimate cruelty emerges as oblivion. A memorable achievement. (Apr.)