Thursday, 27 June 2013

Life in Red

"Change" is the second Mo Yan book I’ve ever read, the first being a collection of short stories titled "Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh".  I have, however, seen two Zhang Yimou movies based on his stories: "Red Sorghum", and "Happy Times". Therefore, having read "Change" in one sitting, and enjoying it from cover to cover, I got the feeling that I should probably read more books by this Nobel Laureate (in Literature).  

The version of “Change” that I bought in Singapore's Kinokuniya (as my baby daughter lies asleep in her stroller just inches away from the bookshelves) was published as part of a series of books titled “What Was Communism?”  I think, being part of these series sorta reveals what the book’s story would be.

I’ve read many accounts of life during China’s super-communist periods of the 1960s and 1970s.  Many of these accounts talk about the brutality, senselessness, hypocrisy, impunity of actions carried out in the name of upholding communism in those periods.  Many more talked about the pain, grief, anger, and frustration the Chinese people in coping with the tragedies that befell them during those periods.

In describing his experience growing up as a small village boy in the 1960s, a member of the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, as a struggling writer in the 1980s, and a literary celebrity since the turn of the century, Mo Yan also paints a picture of a China in constant change.  A China that has become more and more driven simply by its people’s pursuit of money; a China whose buildings, like the people’s dreams, now reach for the sky.

But amidst all these changes, there are constants in the life of the Chinese people.  Continuity symbolized by the Gaz 51 trucks that had been the highlight of his school days, then becoming the vessel which first took him to Beijing, and later in life, the reminder of all the people who has entered, left, re-entered, and so on, in his life.  Continuity also came in the form of the “gift” he received as a judge in the 2000s; it seems that some things just never change in China, with or without reform.

Mo Yan writes with simplicity and tells his story like I would tell of my life during the oppressive rule of Soeharto.  Yes, life was tough, and yes, many suffered.  But life goes on, and we the people make best of whatever was in front of us.  We learn to appreciate the small things in life, laugh at the hint of a comedic episode, and appreciate things more than what they may actually be worth.  He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of life in China under communism; nor does he paint a picture with a bloody brush.

Indeed, Mo Yan has received numerous criticisms from peers at home and abroad for his unwillingness to bluntly challenge the communist government in China.  But from my perspective, Mo Yan’s ideological standing doesn’t lessen his value as a writer, a poet, a story-teller of the Chinese people. 

To many, Mo Yan may have not captured the anti-establishment angst that permeates the literary works of many great writers, anywhere around the world.  But, it would be silly to say that he has failed to capture voice of the people, when we know very well that not all express their sadness, pain, and frustration simply through anger.

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