Mo Yan’s novel, Frog—his first since he won the Nobel Prize in 2012—has, once again, been brilliantly translated by Howard Goldblatt, whom we are indebted to for many of the author’s earlier works. As a reader, it’s great to be back in Yan country—Northeast Gaomi Territory, the setting of most of his work, and the writer’s own Yoknapatawpha County. The rich heritage of the area is, again, impacted by government regulations—this time China’s “one-child policy” during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. Never afraid of exposing the foibles of Communist China, from the beginning, Yan has been a strong voice of reason, in spite of encountering issues with censorship early in his career. I used to teach two of Yan’s earlier novels, Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads, and were I still teaching I would want to place Frog on my syllabus.
Wan Zu (aka Xiaopao (aka Tadpole (aka Frog)))—the novel’s eponymous main character and first-person narrator—relates the story of his famous (and later infamous) aunt, Gugu, or Wan Xin, a midwife. Before the one-child policy, she delivers ten thousand babies, making her revered in the territory. But, then, after the policy is implemented she performs an almost equal number of abortions—some of them as late as the seventh month of pregnancy. There are horrifying details of suffering, as women who have already given birth to one child are forced to undergo an abortion. Gugu also inserts IUDs in women, sometimes without their knowledge, after their first delivery, and she gives vasectomies to t heir husbands.
Frog is actually the first baby Gugu delivers, and he has some reverence for her because of that. But when Wang Renmei—his wife, years later—gives birth to their child, a daughter, Gugu surreptitiously inserts an IUD into her uterus. Renmei pays someone else to have it removed and when Frog, who has joined the military, comes home on leave, she becomes pregnant with a second child, all to her husband’s great surprise. The major incident in the story—at least for the narrator and his family—is the fight over Renmei’s pregnancy. If the child is born, Frog will lose his coveted position in the army. Both parents, however, are conflicted because tests have shown that the second child is a boy.
This is Frog’s dilemma: “Mother, I said, there are rules in the army. If I have a second child, I’ll lose my Party membership and my army commission, and I’ll be sent home to tend fields. I struggled for years to leave the village, and having a second child isn’t worth giving all that up.” And his mother’s response? “Are Party membership and a commission more precious than a child? It takes people to make a world. If you have no one to carry on the line, what good does it do to become a high official, even if you’re second only to Chairman Mao?”
Gugu insists that Renmei have an abortion, putting it in a context that has ramifications beyond her own immediate family: “…you have set a bad example. There are two paths you can take from here: you can come out of there on your own and go with me to the health center to terminate your pregnancy…. Or you can be defiant, in which case the tractor will pull down the house of your parents’ neighbors on all sides, then pull down your parents’ house. Your father will have to cover all your neighbors’ losses. Even after that, we will still terminate your pregnancy.” In other words, no choice. And then—to make matters worse—Renmei dies during her abortion, as does the child. It’s not a pretty picture, but that’s the intent. The ruthlessness of the one-child policy often resulted in tragic consequences for the women involved. In the aftermath of this disaster, Frog leaves the army and in time marries Little Lion, who was once Gugu’s assistant. But the marriage is cursed also, because Little Lion is barren, convinced that she became sterile because she assisted Gugu in those abortions. The consequences of these incidents move the story into a spectacular series of concluding events.
Then, Yan unleashes still more surprises and reversals that take the novel into even darker territory. From the beginning of Frog’s narration, the novel’s form has been quasi-epistolary, as he writes to a mentor who advised him to write a novel about his aunt Gugu’s career as mid-wife/abortionist and the way her career influenced so many people in Northwest Gaomi Territory—beginning with his own birth. Thus, the sections of the novel have been addressed to that mentor. Yet Frog’s real desire has been to write a full-length drama covering all of these details, not a novel. That nine-act play follows Frog’s lengthy letters to the mentor and is called Frog.
Besides changing the literary form, the play highlights the connection between frogs and human beings: “The [Chinese] character for frog symbolized a profusion of children, and it has become Northeast Gaomi Township’s totem…. No more than one out of ten thousand [tadpoles] would become frogs…just like a man’s sperm…only about one in ten million penetrates the egg to make a child.” Frog, the play, also permits other voices (other characters) to be heard and offers a moving counterbalance to what has been related in the earlier epistolary sections. More pain for these and other characters in the novel but also atonement, remorse, and hope for the survivors. The novel cum drama is an inspired move on Yan’s part, wrapping up the narrative in a totally satisfying manner.
So who’s to say that an established novelist can’t break into new form with a new narrative? Reading Mo Yan’s Frog in Howard Goldblatt’s dazzling translation of the Nobel Prize winner’s latest work is quite a treat. And, yes, although the story may be grim at times, it is also replete with humorous incidents and comic relief. Enjoy this world-class writer if you are not already familiar with his work.
Mo Yan: Frog
Trans. By Howard Goldblatt
Viking, 389 pp., $27.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.