Review: The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan (translated by Howard Goldblatt)

I cook with garlic almost every day, but until I read this book I’d rarely thought about where it comes from. It turns out that the vast majority is grown in China, and most of that in Shandong province. China is such a prolific producer of garlic that the ups and downs of its garlic farmers affect the global market; garlic even played in role in the early days the US-China trade war. If this book did anything, it was to remind me yet again that all the food we consume has a source, and how little we know about the lives of the people who grow it.

The Garlic Ballads begins with an arrest. It’s May 1987 and Gao Yang, a garlic farmer in ironically named Paradise County (based on Mo Yan’s hometown in Shandong), is forcefully taken by the police for destroying county offices. He’s dragged down the road, leaving his blind eight-year-old daughter tearfully trying to follow him. When he’s taken to the local offices he finds Fourth Aunt has also been arrested. He warns his cousin, Gao Ma, that he awaits a similar fate, and Ma manages to jump over the fence and escape. Gao Yang and Fourth Aunt are thrown in prison, where we’re treated to harrowing scenes of abuse and deprivation as they await trial.

In loosely intertwined flashbacks we come to understand why these three individuals are wanted. The story begins in the comparatively halcyon days of 1986 when Gao Ma falls in love with Fourth Aunt’s daughter Jinju. Unfortunately she’s been betrothed to someone else, and the entire family’s marital fortunes rest on her going through with the arranged marriage. Gao Ma protests the betrothal; since Liberation (the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949) forced marriage has been illegal, upending centuries of tradition (“What are the times coming to when a girl can decide who she marries?” one character laments). But that’s not counting on corrupt county officials, who brutally reject Gao Ma’s petition.

Meanwhile the garlic farmers are dealing from new economic policies introduced by the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee, a wonky name that belies the meeting’s pivotal role in China’s Reform and Opening Up under new Chairman Deng Xiaoping (in reality, the meeting happened after the events of the novel). Instead of the state buying all their garlic, the farmers have to compete to sell it on something more like a free (and freely corrupt) market, a situation made worse by a garlic glut. The desperate farmers grow increasingly mutinous as they struggle to sell their crop, leading to the riots that see the three protagonists arrested.

In its depiction of rural misery and abjection, the “desperate loneliness and paralysing boredom” as one character calls it, it reminded me a lot of The Grapes of Wrath, except here the human spirit is crushed and beaten until there is little left. No character fares well in The Garlic Ballads; prepare yourself for pages and pages of suffering with little-to-no relief.

The Garlic Ballads takes place at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. The county is still reeling from the Cultural Revolution, the horrifying paroxysm of violence that swept China from 1966 to 1976. Gao Yang’s parents suffered during this time because his father was a landlord. Compared to then, times are good. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the county is infected with political nihilism. The administrators have become “feudal parasites”, they have assumed the role of “public master rather than public servant”, and the bureaucracy is so byzantine and powerful it seems little can be done to change it.

This novel is a lot about corruption, of politics, ideals and spirit. The characters illustrate a breadth of responses to this corruption. Gao Ma rages against the government; “I despise you all,” he says:

“It’s not socialism I hate, it’s you. To you socialism is a mere signboard, but to me it’s a social formation – concrete, not abstract. It’s embodied in public ownership of the means of production and in a system of distribution. Unfortunately it’s also embodied in corrupt officials like you.”

Gao Yang still has a deep respect for the state, if only it could be a little more caring of the little people; perhaps on contemporary social media he would call himself “apolitical” (a criticism Mo Yan himself has received). But even Gao Yang comes to realise he is being short-changed. This story is also about the will to speak out, even in the face of great danger. The novel’s chapters are framed by a ballad sung by the blind minstrel Zhang Kou. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut if I wanted to. There are things inside me that must be said,” he cries. It is the novel’s battle cry, and you are reminded of the risk Mo Yan took in writing it (it was banned in mainland China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests), even though his later Nobel win was lauded by the Chinese government, to which all I can say is, politics, eh?

I’ve read visceral writing before – Hurricane Season, anything by Christos Tsolkias – but this is on another level. This is a novel obsessed with pain and bodily fluids; blood, sweat, tears, piss, vomit. A character is forced to drink piss on three separate occasions, another nearly has to eat someone’s else’s vomit, and I lost count of the number of beatings. To what end, I wondered, except to remind us that we’re all ultimately bags of meat and bones.

Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in literature in part for his “hallucinatory realism”. That is clear in the bodily descriptions, but also the rare moments of beauty and joy, such as when Jinju and her lover Gao Ma escape into a jute field:

The jute was restless, parting like water to allow passage through it, then closing up at once. There were moments when she felt as if she were in a little boat – something she never had in real life – and when she opened her eyes she was treated to a blindingly colourful panorama … The jute bent gently in the cool dusk winds, then waved lightly before slowly righting itself; it was like a scarlet sea. She and her man had been transformed into fish that had forgotten how to swim.

It is a potent depiction of a time and a place, and one that lingers with me long after the final sentence.

Gay rating: not gay

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