Mo Yan, which means “don’t speak,” is the pen name of Chinese writer, Guan Moye, born in the ‘mid 50’s in Gaomi Province, in Shandong, China.
Red Sorghum, or Red Sorghum Clan is Mo Yan’s first novel, published in 1987 in Chinese, with English translation by Howard Goldblatt, published in 1993.
The fairly short novel is divided into 5 chapters: Red Sorghum, Sorghum Wine, Dog Days, Sorghum Funeral, and Strange Death and is told from the 1st person perspective of the narrator.
The narrator tells the tale of his ancestors spanning 2 generations, from the 1920s to 1941 – of their struggles and triumphs before and during the Second Sino-Japanese War, most commonly known to the Chinese as the War of Resistance Against Japan.
In recounting the story of his ancestors, the narrator weaves a strange and fantastic, often tragic tale of love, passion, magic, violence, survival, and politics, starting with his beautiful and headstrong grandmother and dashing but irascible grandfather.
The narrator’s non-linear style of storytelling moves back and forth through the sorghum fields of Northeast Gaomi Township from when his grandmother and grandfather fist meet before the war, to his father’s life and struggles as a 15-year-old boy, trying to survive skirmishes against the Japanese, Chinese puppet soldiers, National soldiers, and rabid packs of dogs.
With his grandfather and grandmother as the focal point of the story, the narrator makes little mention of his father and mother as adults except for a few cryptic statements here and there, and of his own life, or how he came to tell the story of his heroic ancestors.
Red Sorghum portrays life during wartime, when people instinctively fight to survive at all cost, like the villagers of Northeast Gaomi Township who not only have to fight for their lives against the brutal Japanese, but also against fellow Chinese villagers, soldiers, and guerrilla soldiers, looters, bandits, all struggling to survive in a bloody, cruel world.
Many have compared Mo Yan’s novel with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, primarily because they are both set in fictional towns destined to be destroyed by conflict and war. Both novels span several generations of the same family, recounting each generation’s exploits, defeats, and triumphs, and both authors employed a fair amount of magical realism to present their story, though, I think Mo Yan’s style is a bit more realistic than Marquez’s.
Being a tale about strong, passionate people at a time of war, Red Sorghum is not without its fair share of sexual scenes and graphic violence – not recommended for highly emotional readers or for the feint-hearted.
Red Sorghum Clan (1987) – Mo Yan
Penguin Books, 359 pages
Personal rating: 3/5