FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mo Yan and the Use of Satire

by RON JACOBS

Since receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, Chinese writer Mo Yan has been subjected to a torrent of criticism from western reviewers and other scribes.  Most of this criticism focuses on what they perceive to be a lackluster criticism of the Chinese government by Yan.  While this piece is not designed to be a rebuttal to those critics, suffice it to say I think these critics are missing the point.  Whether this is because they have a certain political position to defend (one that ignores the censorship and authoritarianism in the West while probably exaggerating these phenomena in China) or because they don’t understand satire, I am not sure.  The result, however, has been that many of the articles discussing his work since he won the Nobel do not discuss his work at all, just the reviewer’s perception of Yan’s politics.

While I am in no way an apologist for the government of China or the excesses of the government of Mao, the assumptions these reviewers base their arguments on show an abysmal failure to perceive Chinese history and society in any terms other than those propagated by the American Heritage Institute and its neoliberal compatriots.  In a recent interview, Yan discusses his role in Chinese society and the role of writers.  He points to the mistakes of Maoism and his continuing belief in its utopian vision.  He explains his reluctanc20121222_bkp504e to speak publicly, preferring his fiction to speak for him instead.  As for representing China, he remarks: “Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands.”

Reading Mo Yan, I am reminded of the late Egyptian author Nahguib Mahfouz and his tales of Cairo. The multitude of interwoven tales in The Cairo Trilogy is much more than the sum of their parts. Mahfouz relates the story of a street, a neighborhood and the people who eat, worked, sleep, make love and otherwise live there.  The more one reads the more one becomes a part of the neighborhood described. The reader is of course never a participant in the entire sense that the characters on the pages are.  Instead, the reader is someone who hangs out there every day and watches what goes on. Mo Yan’s novels provide the same feeling and sense of participation in the villages and roads he locates his tales.

Yan’s novels are multifaceted affairs that, at first glance, seem to ramble all over the place with no apparent thread to tie the stories he tells together.  Full of animal and human characters, Yan writes of their daily lives, their relationships familial and otherwise, their relationship to authority and so much more.  There is a bit of Chinese folktale in his telling and a tongue-in-cheek use of Confucian and Maoist wisdom and insight.  Animals and humans exchange places and traditional arrangements are upended.  Full of humor, Yan’s books reveal a mind not afraid of playfulness and a pen with an uncanny ability to pull the reader into the intricacies of that which we call a simple life.

I recently finished one of the most recent of Yan’s novels to be translated into English, POW!  The story is told by the main protagonist to a monk at a decaying temple devoted to a half man-half horse god with the genitalia of the horse.  This god is a god of sexual prowess.  The tale he tells is the story of a family in a Chinese village where almost everyone is involved in the raising, butchering and selling of meat.  The primary narrator is the son, who sees everything with an arrogance common to youth and a wisdom more akin to a jaded adult.  His father leaves for another woman.  His mother is quite prideful and pretends to forget about her spouse completely. The father eventually returns with a daughter from the other woman.  This is when the narrator’s life begins to attain success.  Yan does not satirize only the gods.  He also has fun with the way they are constantly reinterpreted to extoll the virtues of the authorities and celebrate new enterprises. It’s not just China and its capitalist road being parodied here. It is the entire world where gods are made to serve capital.

The father is an honest man unable and unwilling to be untrue to himself. The son represents the new youthful, capitalist china, willing to manipulate the laws and his compatriots in the pursuit of money. For him, truth is malleable and subjective; much like the pervasive advertising capitalism requires to sell its products.  His teacher is the son of a landlord disgraced after the success of the revolution. The tale is a story of the new China, where the reigning value is profit.  Nothing is sacred except profit.  Everything is fair; cheating, manipulation of religious beliefs, whatever it takes to make profit.  There is a parade newly designed to extoll the virtues of the village’s meat products, dyed and pumped up with filler as they are.  This day is called Slaughterhouse Day and Yan’s description of the Day’s parade is a clever parody of every holiday parade that substitutes merchandising for tradition and advertising for meaning. It could be Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade Yan is describing as easily as it is the manufactured feast day he relates.

Pointed and humorous elements are essential to clever satire.  Mo Yan is a master at writing in this manner.  Too bad his critics don’t seem to understand it; or just don’t want to.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the forthcoming novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail