Many Chopsticks But No Roof-Beam

download-1.jpgThere were many things to like about Miss Chopsticks by Xue Xinran. First, the translators notes gave a good overview of the difficulties translating Chinese into English and also an  insight into the difficulties of spoken vs. written Chinese as well as the understandable differences in the Chinese language resulting from the wide geography of the country.

That’s all technical but it also reflects the second interesting theme in the novel: the lives of rural Chinese vs. those of people living in the larger cities and towns. Xinran’s narrative makes these differences very clear and the major theme of the narrative is how the three sisters overcome these differences and adapt to the challenges for growth in the city. They go from being only chopsticks, everyday tools that are easily replaceable to being just as strong and valuable as men and boys, easily capable of holding up a roof-beam.

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The Republic of Wine

51v31QsIhrLMany novels slalom between reality, or at least a fictional reality, and fiction. Characters step out of the fiction to be a part of the reality and real personages are sucked into the fiction. Add to this the somewhat clichéd tactic of having one of the characters writing in the fictional reality when they are also a part of the fiction and their writing becomes the real fiction of the novel. But in some novels there is room for the real to leak into the fiction and the fictional to leak into the real, the fictional real, that is.

Take Mo Yan’s excellent novel, The Republic of Wine. The story starts with an investigation into rumors that babies are being eaten at banquets in Liquorland. But then a young liquor scholar is writing stories which he sends to the well-known author Mo Yan for critical evaluation and possible publication. So the story writer sends the story to a real-life person and then the story is inserted into the overall narrative: but the story is about Liquorland and it’s inhabitants and the possible eating of babies. Just to add another layer, characters in the stories themselves tell stories and all the stories assume an aspect of the fictional reality … and then it gets even more intertwined.

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Women Hold Up Half the Sky

womenI realize that until fairly recently women were viewed more as possessions than as human beings. If men were able to create life themselves, I’m sure women would still be indentured servants at best, and possibly even go the way of the passenger pigeon.

This makes sex the most primary human activity, more important even than making money.

But now that women are no longer dying young in childbirth or being raped and pillaged during border disputes and range wars (this doesn’t apply to all parts of the world), men have been forced to pay attention to women for other than pleasure and procreation. Women have become an important economic and political force in the world, even though the angry old white men in the United States are dragging their feet to recognize this fact. Many men cannot wrap their feeble little minds around the concept that women should be treated as equals.

Why is that?

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Red Sorghum

yanMany readers of Mo Yan’s award-winning novel, Red Sorghum, will not be familiar with sorghum even though it is one of the major cereal grains grown around the world. However, if you’re from the South, sweet sorghum (which we called sorghum molasses) might actually be a staple: hot biscuits with sorghum syrup for breakfast being a favorite. But in Mo Yan’s novel, sorghum is the major crop, sustaining entire villages in northern China early in the previous century. It is also the central image in the novel, symbolic of life and grow but also death and suffering.

The focus in Red Sorghum is the war in China against the invading Japanese that occurred in the 1930s. But it is also the story of a poor agrarian society, ruled by a feudal system and fearing local bandits, that is struggling to stay alive and also to move slowly into the Twentieth-Century. Told through an often confusing series of narrations and digressions, Red Sorghum spans three generation of a family in this rural society. From attacking the Japanese at a bridge to overpowering a rival bandit gang to improving the quality of the sorghum wine by pissing in the pot, Mo Yan’s novel is always interesting and you have a strong sense of the history of these people and, by extension, of the country.

Please read this novel. It is often brutal but also beautiful and lyrical. It will certainly convince you that the author deserves the honor of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012. As the academy wrote of Mo Yan:

“who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”