Sun, Mar 10, 2002 - Page 18 News List

A feast of short stories for the famished

Mo Yan's collection of short stories offers little of interest, with one masterful exception

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

When Gao Xingjian (高行健) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, the authorities in Beijing retorted that they had a thousand writers who deserved the honor better. Prominent among this imaginary host could well have been Mo Yan (莫言). It's true some of his humor might be a little too close to the bone for the Chinese hierarchy.

Nevertheless, he is regularly touted, especially in America, as the foremost comic writer currently at work in China. This new publication is a collection of eight of his short stories, several of them a decade and more old, but none the worse for that.

The book contains one absolute masterpiece, entitled The Cure. In a cold dawn during the Cultural Revolution, a father and his small son wait under a bridge. Above, the assembled village watches as four people are executed while the sun rises. The bodies are then thrown over the parapet, at which the father quickly cuts out the gall bladder from one of them, and takes it home to make tea to cure his mother's cataracts.

This brief tale of horror, which should surely be reprinted worldwide, appears to confirm from within China the accusation made in Sid Smith's recent award-winning novel Something Like a House that the organs of the Red Guards' victims were routinely removed by villagers in remote areas of China for medicinal purposes.

Mo Yan is no stranger to grotesque and horrific scenes. Indeed, you could say they were his meat and drink as cannibalism features large in his books. His novel The Republic of Wine, for instance, centered around the cooking and eating of unwanted children, albeit in a surreal and dreamlike context.

This new book's title story (recently filmed by Zhang Yimou (張藝謀) as Happy Days) is, as you'd expect, the longest. A factory is closed down and all employees laid off, including a man close to retirement age who had been hailed as a model worker. Like the others, however, he now has to do what he can to make ends meet.

Publication Notes:

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh

By Mo Yan

189 pages

Available from FNAC

He hits on the idea of converting an old bus, abandoned in woods on a mountainside, into a lovers' retreat, what in Taiwan would be a room in a hotel offering couples two hours of "rest." At first things go splendidly and the man can't believe how much money he's making. Then one day in the middle of winter, just when he's thinking of shutting up shop until the spring, a strange pair arrive and rent the space. It would be a pity to give away the twist in the tale, but take it from me it's not exactly world-shattering. That this is ostensibly the book's main offering doesn't raise one's hopes very high for what's to come.

Another tale, Man and Beast, paints the picture of a Chinese contract worker stranded in the mountains of Japan's Hokkaido during World War II. He lives in a cave where his closest companions are bears, wolves and foxes, particularly the last whose lair he has commandeered. They eventually attack him, and he falls, along with them, to the floor of the forest below. There he encounters a Japanese woman, but is too disgusted to touch her. End of story.

The initial situation, in other words, is promising, but the development is weak. Another tale, Love Story, elicits the same response. In a remote rural community during the 1960s a young boy is attracted to a city woman from a bourgeois background. He thinks she will never look at him, but offers her a carrot as a present nonetheless. It transpires that her need is as great as his. (By now we're on the story's last page). They grab each other, and the following year she gives birth to twins. You'll be excused if your response is "So what?"

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