The Garlic Ballads

Mo Yan weaves together a tale of  ’brutal honesty’ and sheer poetry in his story of the garlic-farming peasants of Paradise County. The novel centres around the arrest of Gao Ma, Gao Yang and Fourth Aunt, who have been imprisoned for participating in a mass riot against the local government. But interspersed with this main narrative is the tragic love between Gao Ma and Jinju, as well as the stories of former landlords and the struggling garlic farmers, based on the villagers of Mo Yan’s hometown in Shandong Province.

I have to say that this was a welcome respite from the Proust’s dreamy voice/narrative style in Swann’s Way. Mo Yan is sharp, in both his language and observations, and such a powerful writer. Having formed an image of him as the Chinese Communist Party’s poster boy, I was surprised to see that he writes with such unnerving frankness. He never once shies away from telling the difficult truths, nor does he sugarcoat the actions of corrupt government officials. Several of his books, including this one, are banned in the mainland because of their non-government approved stance on certain issues.

While (as with Barnes’ recent Booker winning The Sense of an Ending), I don’t want to detract from the merits of this book by making this post about politics, I want to just point out that Mo Yan is hardly a friend of the CCP for “failing to speak out” about the imprisonment of writers such as Liu Xiaobo. It’s like the P. G. Wodehouse and the Nazi radio broadcast all over again. I’m not the one to say whether he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize or not. But let’s not allow some of his poor choices or his personal right to act or not act in a certain situation to discolour our view of his writing itself.

For instance, Salman Rushdie has dismissed Mo Yan as a “patsy” for the Chinese government for not speaking out, but do we all need to conform to Rushdie’s standards? He might think he has the right to point fingers at others so easily, because he’s had his life put on the line as a result of one of his works. We can’t deny that Rushdie has been through a hell of a lot for the freedom of literature he believes in. But would Rushdie himself, having the benefit of hindsight, choose to publish The Satanic Verses all over again, knowing the ordeal he’d have to face – or want anyone to face a similar ordeal? We aren’t talking about signing any old petition against whaling or something – censorship and freedom of speech is a deeply political issue in China. And Mo Yan has the right to choose whether or not he wants to get himself deeply involved in those things as a writer. 

Key word: writer.

I thought a writer’s primary role was to write. Anyone who has read Mo Yan’s work closely will find it hard to accuse him of being a ‘patsy’. Knowing that this generation of writers have emerged from a culture of fear and persecution during the Cultural Revolution, it’s a big step that writers are gaining the courage to write with honesty and conviction again. There is a vibrant literary scene in China at the moment – Yan Lian-ke, Mo Yan, Yan Geling – all these writers are speaking out against social injustice/corruption. Let’s not crush that momentum by pointing fingers. We in the West are too hasty, always expecting things to transform the way we want them. Why isn’t China a democracy yet? Why is there such a wealth divide in China? Why are artists and intellectuals still imprisoned for speaking out? Well, guess what? Change doesn’t happen overnight. You have to look at the bigger picture to see that yes, there is a lot happening.

“A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression,” Mo said in a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, “Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.” Mo Yan is not a human rights activist, he’s not a spokesperson for some liberation movement – he’s a writer. And he’s done his job by writing powerful works about injustice and the plight of ordinary people in contemporary China. In his own words,  ”For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated.” I, for one, agree with him.


3 thoughts on “The Garlic Ballads

    1. Hmm it’s interesting that you mention the Yan’an talks in your post, because Mao mainly spouted bits and pieces of propaganda rather than attempt to create ‘true art’ in China. It was all about how they could create a global literature that would rank with the prominent English/American writers of the time. So in a way, I guess even at Yan’an it was all about competing with the West.

      But what I find annoying (and this has been argued by writers @ The Guardian) is that there is a definite double standard. Writers in the West live such a comfortable existence, and while they’re allowed to be everything from flippant to serious to ironic to crass, they’re hardly expected to be political. Some are applauded for it ,and they are definitely free to be vocal about politics, but it’s not something that a writer must do. It’s not a primary role. Yet in places like China and the Middle East, it’s like we expect writers to take that on. And if they don’t take a stance, they’re being cowardly! It doesn’t make any sense at all!

      1. I share your annoyance with this “double standard.”

        But I would have to clarify that Mao’s Marxist aesthetics had nothing to do with either mere “pieces of propaganda” or “competing with the West.”

        The central problem in the Yenan Forum is how to make aesthetics fit the war effort against the Japanese who were occupying large parts of China during the time Mao penned the document.

        Along the way, Mao reiterates the basic Marxist view on art and literature, its interrelation with society and politics, and the need for one that is firmly committed for the people.

        Sartre also approaches the same question from a different route in his musings in “What is Literature.”

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