Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Research Specialist, Transgenic Mouse Core Facility, MUSC,
Charleston, SC 29425) <[email protected]>
Ju Dou, the 1990 Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou, was banned in China for several years after the pro-democracy stance at Tiananmen Square. When the film played in the Basic Science Auditorium at the Medical University of South Carolina, as part of a university film series, there was not an empty seat in the auditorium. Every Chinese student, post-doctoral fellow, and professor at the university was most likely present to watch this film. Zhang Yimou became my favorite director that day after watching this tragic story unfold in vivid technicolor on a screen in an auditorium surrounded by his countrymen. The story is set in a dye mill, and Zhang uses the color red to his complete and commanding advantage.
This memory flooded in after learning that Mo Yan had been presented the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize and discovering that his 1997 novel, Red Sorghum, had inspired a Zhang Yimou’s film of the same name. I immediately ordered the book and patiently waited its arrival. Amazon is relatively quick with delivery so soon I was immersed in the saga of three generations of a Shandong province family and surrounded once again by the color red.
On the opening page Mo Yan greets the reader: “With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright-red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your unfilial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!” This is a tough read, but so beautifully written that I found myself stopping to reflect on the ability to craft words in such a way that even the horrid is a pleasure to read. I will share this excerpt from the Chapter entitled Sorghum Funeral:
“What is love? Everybody has his own answer. But this demon of an emotion has spelled doom for more valiant men and lovely, capable women than you can count. Based upon Granddad’s romantic history, my father’s tempestuous love affairs, and the pale desert of my own experiences, I’ve framed a pattern of love that applies to the three generations of my family. The first ingredient of love — fanaticism — is composed of heart-piercing suffering: the blood flows through the intestines and bowels, and out of the body as feces the consistency of pitch. The second ingredient — cruelty — is composed of merciless criticism: each partner in the love affair wants to skin the other alive, physically and psychologically. They both want to rip out each other’s blood vessels, muscles, and every writhing internal organ, including the heart. The third ingredient — frigidity — is composed of a protracted heavy silence. Icy emotions frost the faces of people in love. Their teeth chatter so violently they can’t talk, no matter how badly they want to.”
In an interview after the Nobel Prize announcement Mo Yan related that “his greatest challenge as a writer has been to reflect the social realities of his native China without allowing personal political opinions to suppress his work.” Nevertheless, one of his works, The Garlic Ballads, was also banned in China during the post-Tiananmen Square time. I felt oddly duty-bound to seek out and read this novel. I downloaded it onto my Kindle and discovered yet another beautifully written tough read with controversial overtones.
Mo Yan, which means “don’t speak,” is the pen name for Guan Moye. He was advised not to speak his mind because of the potential consequences that would be imposed on him due to the era’s politics. He was born to a family of farmers in 1955 in the Gaomi area of the Shandong province — exactly the setting for his generational saga Red Sorghum. He was awarded the prize for a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary.” A perfect description for both of these novels elegantly translated by Howard Goldblatt, a Research Professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-2011.