I confess that the majority of my reading consists of native English speaking authors. Since moving to Europe it has broadened quite a bit, especially among Nordic writers, but also to Russians, French, Italians and South Americans. One big hole in my literary experience has been in the Far East. Besides some ancient Buddhist writers, I haven’t read too much from that part of the world. So when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, it gave me a good excuse to start reading.
I’ve read Yan’s English version of Red Sorghum, a tale of three generations of Chinese in the early part of the 20th Century. Much of it involves fighting against the invading Japanese and each other. The violence is pervasive: everyone is shooting or stabbing or punching or skinning everyone else. I suspect the word “blood” appears, on average, at least once a page. In fact, there is so much blood that I originally thought the “Red” in the title must refer to blood. (“Urine” and its derivatives are pretty popular, too. Everyone is peeing on each other, or in wine, or whatever.)
This has to be one of the most violent books I’ve ever read. To put that statement into context, I’ve read some Forgotten Realms crap, where each title is basically a series of battles, skirmishes, murders, assassinations, slaughters and massacres carried out in a fantasy milieu over a standard trilogy and marketed to teenaged boys with twisted Hollywood ideas of entertainment. Basically, if someone in Red Sorghum isn’t killing someone else at any given moment, he or she is probably planning it, or at least considering it.
Yan has been in for some criticism for his closeness to the Chinese authorities. Salman Rushdie called him a “patsy” for not asking for the release of another Chinese Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. Yan has also defended censorship, which, to understate the situation, is a rather odd stance for a writer to take. And, to be honest, while reading Red Sorghum I had a few instances of suspicion about the content.
That is not to say Red Sorghum isn’t good. It’s very good. I’m not sure it alone is Major Prize good, but the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature is a bit irregular and literature is subjective anyway.
But the best thing I can say about Red Sorghum is that it has whetted my appetite for Chinese literature. Now I can’t wait to read more.