Originally published on Rue89- 30/8/2009.
Landowner or servant, all under karma law:
A landowner,a good man, Ximen Nao, and a foster child who became his servant, Lan Lian, are both the heroes of this book. The law of karma determines all existences, it is a bill to pay based on our past actions.
With reincarnation, the effects of these acts affect the successive lives of an individual in an endless cycle, samsara. Mo Yan tells us the origin of his initial idea:
“During a visit to a temple in Chengde, north-east of Beijing, a mural describing reincarnation in several animals, gave me the idea of the book. Lan Lian, a farmer in my village, Gaomi, the only one to refuse to enter the collective system, really existed. “
The landowner, Ximen Nao, was murdered in 1950 during the land reform decided by Mao Zedong shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic on October 1949. He pleades his case before the God of the Underworld, who, impressed by his list of acts for the benefit of his village or his tenants, allows him to be reborn as a donkey, cow, pig, dog, monkey and finally as a child on the first day of the new millennium …
During his childhood as a peasant, Mo Yan was very close to animals; kicked out of school for “bad class origins, he kept a buffalo. The animals will be the narrators of this novel, but also a child, as often with the writer, and finally the novelist Mo Yan himsel as a character in the novel.
Mo Yan’s character is very present and often tunned ridiculous: “He is astonishingly ugly, has a strange behavior, he often tells unbelievable stories, he is a figure despised by everybody ” .
The self-mockery leads us to a superb description, his portrait by the pig “Mo Yan continues to assert his peasant origins, he spends his time writing to the International Committee of the Olympic Games asking that a competition with a hoe should take place, he could then sign in … “(p.439).
Mo Yan’s character existed in another great novel “The Republic of wine” (Le Seuil, 2000), but here he plays an important role, especially at the end of the book, when he protects Lan Jiefang, the son of Lan Lian .
The book’s structure is very simple: “Yes, it is true, we are far from the modernism
of “The thirteen steps” but this does not mean that I will continue in this style of simplicity, I will change for future novels”.
Fantasy, historical descriptions, simply talent :
Anthology pages: the pig, in pursuit of the moon where Chairman Mao sits:
“You see, at that time, Mao was seen as a god. ” It is in the tradition of great classical novels: “Journey to the West,” the journey of a Buddhist monk in India and two followers, monkey and pig.
The ox can stand on its front legs and the pig climb a tree, but we are still strong with reality. A brilliant epic story can even tell us how to cook wafers !
As sometimes with Mo Yan, the grotesque can be scatological: Mao badges accidentally fell into the public toilet, his unlucky owner is relieved from his job !
The changes in his village, Gaomi, and historical turmoils of the last fifty years, are the real subject of this novel. Buddhism is a pretext
“I admire the Buddhist religion, but I am not a follower. Formerly in Gaomi, there were temples that were demolished, but Buddhism is in everybody’s heart, illiterate farmers never read sutras but believe, especially the older generation, in reincarnation. “
The historical perspective can be politically incorrect. There are few novels published in China, where most of the negative characters are local village officials or Party members. Mo Yan does not quite agree:
“No, one of the characters, Hong Taihu, has positive aspects, he does not agree that the party moves away from the policy of Mao Zedong. Lan Lian and him have strong convictions, they have the same character. Lan Lian keeps his plot of land, refuses to incorporate with the People’s Commune, Hong Taihu remains with his beliefs. They are two sides of the same coin. “
But in the novel, the end of Hong Taihu will be tragic …
The book has not been officially criticized, no censorship although some circles were probably quite upset.
The yellow line is crossed when he tells us about the “Great Leap Forward (1958-1961): the only blast furnaces in production are those in villages where live “rightist engineers” , sentenced to ” reform through labor” . Only the independent farmer, Lan Lian, does not starve, but his reserves of seeds are looted by members of the People’s Commune and his donkey is eaten.
The slogans of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) are diverted, for example in breeding pigs in the Commune: “support the cause of world revolution, each pig is a shell fired against the imperialists, the revisionists, the counter- revolutionaries…”. And the return to private property which follows, shows that Lan lian was right:
“Only when the land belongs to us can we be its master. “
Mo Yan is more cautious when it comes to the recent period. While the shortcomings of Chinese society are condemned, whether abuse by local officials, unrealistic projects that allow misuse of public funds, schools crumbling, the sons of officials admitted with forged reviews … but the officials, Party members, pay the abuses with their lives or are removed by higher authorities.
The moral is saved as in “Brothers” the novel by Yu Hua , which underlines the same drawbacks, but where the Party never appears.
We also felt Mo Yan less comfortable when he discusses the modern period, he feels better in his village Gaomi, with his memories and the last chapters of the novel are very rapidly written.
A delivery in forty-three days …
One can understand that after 700 pages, written in forty-three days, the last sixty are of less quality. But as Mo Yan said, “some people spend ten years writing a book but this does not mean that the book is good.”
Desk, soft pen, paper, tea, tobacco, the program of a distance runner, ten hours a day. He will give some details on how he works during a meeting held in Aix-en-Provence and organized by Noel and Liliane Dutrait. They share with Chantal Chen-Andro, the difficult task of translating with great talent, his thick novels.
Mo Yan has abandoned his computer because he is tempted to connect to the internet and it distracts him; he feels a physical pleasure to write while listening to Beijing Opera. The delivery was difficult, but after this book, he has produced nothing for three years.
Currently, he is writing a novel about a country doctor and this is very linked to the theater of Jean Paul Sartre! He did not tell us not more in spite of our questions …
► “The harsh law of Karma” by Mo Yan – translated by Chantal Chen-Andro – ed. Le Seuil – 760 pages – 26 €.
Photo: Mo Yan and his French translator, Chantal Chen-Andro, Paris, June 2009 .