When this magazine’s literary editor asked me to take on Frog, I protested that I am simply a historian by trade, innocent of the entangling wiles and wherefores common in today’s literary circles. But he insisted, and just as well, because I found this novel fascinating.
Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, a choice that was controversial in many circles because of his unwillingness to raise his voice in support of dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, who, though jailed by Beijing, was awarded the Peace Prize in 2010. Mo Yan, in fact, means “Don’t speak” and is the pen name of Guan Moye. Frog (Wa in Chinese) was published in 2009 and has now been brilliantly brought into English by Howard Goldblatt, who has done more than probably anyone else to introduce contemporary Chinese writing to English speakers. (He recently finished an 11-year stint as professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame.)
Mo Yan’s novel opens in a small country village in Shandong province in 1960, just as the greatest famine in recorded history (it killed perhaps 35 or 40 million people in two or three years) is beginning to let up. Wan Zu, nicknamed Tadpole, is a teenager at the time, and his narration carries the story into the first decade of our century today. It takes the form, in part at least, of an epistolary novel, set out in a series of letters from Tadpole, an aspiring playwright, to his Japanese teacher (whose father, during the war had jailed some of Tadpole’s family).
Tadpole’s dramatic subject is his aunt, Gugu (Wan Xin), a true believer in the Party and its doctrines, even when she herself is being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s. She is modern; she is scientifically trained as a midwife and obstetrician, proud to replace the dirty and superstitious practitioners of a prior generation. Though Chairman Mao had earlier argued for large families to raise China’s national stature, by 1970 the one-child policy had arrived, and Gugu makes it her business to ensure that family planning, as the Party euphemistically calls it, is relentlessly carried out: forced abortions, forced sterilizations, persecution of those who try to slip through the net. Tadpole’s wife herself is one of Gugu’s victims. Having earlier borne a girl, she tries for a boy in a covert second pregnancy, and the late term abortion carried out by Gugu kills her (Tadpole himself reluctantly gives permission for the procedure in the belief that his position as army officer demands it).
Such policies have received a fair amount of press in the West. Just recently Barefoot Lawyer appeared, the record of Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist (also from Shandong), whose activities trying to shield victims from the family planning enforcers led to him being jailed, his later escape from house arrest and his flight with his family to the United States a few years ago. But though Gugu’s grim role remains central to Frog, there is much more going on in this novel. A Swiss scholar, Andrea Riemenschnitter, has suggested that the book is, among other things, a critique of China’s attempts to deal with modernity since the early 20th century, and that an uncritical embrace of what were seen as Enlightenment and scientific values led to such horrors as the enforced family planning campaign.
Back in 1918 the great writer Lu Xun (a communist literary hero, who died fortuitously in 1936 before the Party could see just how subversive he was) published his Diary of a Madman, a groundbreaking and highly influential story in the modernist style. “Save the children” is its last line.
But while a century ago, Lu Xun wanted to save the children from the iniquities and superstitions of what he and his advanced contemporaries saw as China’s traditional Confucian culture, Mo Yan, though he doesn’t use the phrase, may well be calling today for children to be saved from the kind of scientism that led, among other things, to the activities of Gugu and those like her under both Mao and his successor Deng Xiaoping. Now, in her old age, Gugu is at once proud of all the children her skills have brought into the world but tormented by the memory of all those (about a thousand) she zealously prevented from being born. Here Mo Yan, clearly enjoying himself, gives his readers a strong dose of magic realism, looking at Gugu who, now with the help of her husband (a maker of clay baby dolls) is able to see (or so she thinks, at any rate) that her victims can now be brought into the world through other mothers.
Mo Yan comes from the countryside and writes about the countryside. As an ex-student of mine, himself a Beijing native, said to me, “He’s not a Beijing snob—as I am!” Rural life, as Mo Yan sees it, has always been harsh, and still is. His Shandong people are not the movers and shakers of Chinese modernity; modernization is being done to them, not by them.
This is perhaps not a book for the literal minded. But Mo Yan’s writing is enormously lively. By all means, try it out. It’s a wild ride.