Shifu, You'll Do Anything For a Laugh

Mo Yan, trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Arcade, $23.95 (189p) ISBN 978-1-55970-565-3

If China has a Kafka, it may be Mo Yan. Like Kafka, Yan (The Republic of Wine; Red Sorghum) has the ability to examine his society through a variety of lenses, creating fanciful, Metamorphosis-like transformations or evoking the numbing bureaucracy and casual cruelty of modern governments. The title novella of this collection of eight tales chronicles the story of old Ding, whose 43 years of dedicated service to the Municipal Farm Equipment Factory have earned him the honorific Shifu, or master worker. Despite this praise, Ding is abruptly laid off one month before his retirement. After contemplating his options—including setting himself on fire in protest—Ding decides to go with a more entrepreneurial approach, converting an abandoned bus into a cottage-for-hire for lovers. As an old man getting his first taste of capitalism, he serves as a symbol for many of those facing struggles in modern China. Another entry, "Man and Beast," a leftover piece from Mo's Red Sorghum saga, evokes some of the horror of Japan's wartime treatment of China, while "The Cure" demonstrates the hatred and desperation China inflicted upon itself during the Cultural Revolution. Mo abandons the realistic mode for "Soaring," in which a new bride takes flight like a butterfly, though the violence with which she's brought back to earth proves that not every fable features a happy ending. This collection brings together stories written over the past 20 years and feels more like a random buffet than a carefully planned meal. Still, it provides a useful introduction to one of China's most important contemporary writers. (Aug.)

Reviewed on: 07/16/2001
Release date: 08/01/2001
Genre: Fiction
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