Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Garlic Ballads
Mo Yan

ISBN 978-1-61145-530-4

Venturing into China, I decided to look for a contemporary work that would move away from the historical way that is well documented in other reviews. It was whilst rummaging around the works of Nobel Prize winning authors that I came across this story from an author whose work is often banned from his native home. I do think if I was the Chinese government I too would ban his work, or else be thoroughly ashamed that my actions were being exposed.

 It s a love story, (or not), a story of family values (or stresses), but mostly a story about the ordinary working folk trying to make a living for their family in spite of the actions of the local governing party members. It becomes a story of human frustration that spills over in a low level demonstration by the farmers that have devastating consequences. The garlic crop has been planted and farmed based on the request, and I use that term loosely, of the collective. A glut ensues, the farmers lose their entire years earnings, and finally they begin to ask why the government is failing them. The inevitable consequences appear disproportionate, however they are described with great plausibility.  

Into this mix, we must consider the way that a modern family still treats the women of the home. Certainly in this tale, we might have been reading a book written a hundred years ago. The wife has become a devoted slave to her husband’s whims, and the daughter is certainly not invited to offer an opinion on anything. She is to be sold, via a dowry, into a marriage that she has no wish to be part of. When she expresses a love for the young man in the next field, she is beaten brutally by her father and lambasted by her brothers while her mother stands by. Although the brothers are not entitled to beat their sister, they have no such inhibitions towards her young lover. Powerful stuff indeed!

The story is written at many levels. The three entwined threads, as I have described, goes through several time spans. Firstly we are living with the consequences of everybody’s actions. We are also taken back to the various recent histories of each of the characters and families, and finally, we are taken back to their earlier histories to explain how and why they are all in the situations they find themselves. However, throughout the novel we have the government attitude in the background. This is probably where the censor has a problem. We, the outside world, are aware of their attitude to all manner of issues concerning the ordinary folk trying to eke out a living. ‘Might is right’ is a phrase that runs as an underlying threat to every strand of this excellently written, well crafted novel concerning dreadful behaviour of all manner of departments, courts, government officials and heads of families.

I do urge you to try and find a copy of this book; if you choose to disbelieve all the claims made by the author it is still a very good read and if you do believe the claims, prepare to ask yourself what you might be able to do to change to lot of the ordinary hard working people of China.

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