Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh

From Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, by Mo Yan
Open quote 

Eggs were such a rare treat that the old women had to show us how to peel them first. Clumsily we peeled away the shells, only to find feathery little chicks inside. They chirped when we bit into them, and they bled. When we stopped eating, the old women took switches to us and demanded that we keep eating. We did."

Yikes! Reading these short stories, the reader quickly realizes that we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in China at the hands of one of China's most acclaimed authors, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mo Yan.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

China's Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. This collection of his short stories spans a couple of decades of his work. The stories contain fables, love stories, exposés of social ills in the People's Republic, and lots of insight into life in modern China.

The title story, "Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh" is not, despite its title, a humor piece. But the sexual business at the heart of its plot probably was titillating to Chinese readers. It tells the story of a man nearing retirement who loses his job when his factory closes. Like the other stories, this one's best feature for a Western audience is in revealing how this socialist state doesn't do a very good job of providing for its workers.

Other stories also show how difficult life is in rural China. "The Cure" tells the story of a man and his son who wait under a bridge to scavenge the falling bodies of executed villagers. Pathos. "Abandoned Child" is a story of a man who finds an infant in a sunflower field and discovers how Chinese society, with its "one family, one child" policy, has little desire for baby girls and no interest in helping this man find a home to care for the innocent life he rescues. Poignant and searing. "Man and Beast" tells the tale of a Chinese man who escapes WWII imprisonment in Japan and lives for years in a cave in a forest. His life is almost literally reduced to living like an animal.

There are stories with a touch of the magical in them. "Shifu," the title story, ends with Shifu's new capitalist money-making scheme being upset by a pair of customers who just might be spirits of some kind. "Soaring" tells the tale of a new bride who does not relish being wedded to the man chosen for her. She literally takes flight in her attempt to escape her fate. "Iron Child" is a strange fable of a boy who turns to eating iron when real food is scarce.

The synopses of these stories make them sound much more interesting than they are reading them. Their quality is very uneven, some of which might be the result of the translation. The plots don't proceed in any conventional (Western) sense and the endings can be quite abrupt. Still, the stories do give Western readers a look behind the curtains of the People's Republic of China, where everyday people just try to get by.

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