Academic journal article China Perspectives

The (Bio)political Novel: Some Reflections on Frogs by Mo Yan

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The (Bio)political Novel: Some Reflections on Frogs by Mo Yan

Article excerpt

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In the field of contemporary Chinese literature Mo Yan ...(1956- ) has a special place owing to the continually striking and even bewildering images in his ongoing literary output. From his Wineland to Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, through Sandalwood Tortureto Big Breasts and Wide Hips, his works invariably display scenes of cannibalism, cruelty, and violence that excite and divide critical opinion. These often-discussed as- pects of his work actually conceal an underlying political energy, which comes to the fore in his latest novel Frogs (Wa),(1) giving the reader an un- usual perspective on the complex relations between fiction and politics. From the very outset, this writer has recognised that his work is inextri- cably linked to politics, as is made clear in his introduction to The Garlic Ballads(Tiantang suantai zhi ge ...), a novel published in 1987: "The novelist always tries to keep clear of politics, but the novel itself in- exorably draws closer to it."(2) Although this declaration is toned down in subsequent editions, the author has never repudiated this inner conviction, which finds an outlet not so much in overt commitments as through its literary reconfiguration. While the basic impulse of this novel is a plea on behalf of the shamefully exploited peasants, it gives precedence to fiction over factual reporting, deliberately mixing the language of the media with a blind man's song and t ales of imagination. In this filtering and remould- ing of politics, Mo Yan resembles Yan Lianke ..., author of The Dream of Ding Village (Dingzhuang meng ...), a committed work that avoids documentary realism. (3)

Frogs represents a further step in "testing the political" within a dialectic that refracts politics through the prism of literary discourse.(4)The novel is divided into five sections, but in reality it consists of two halves, the first of which presents the dramatic events arising from the compulsory abor- tions of the 1960s, and the second the no less tragic story, in a more recent context, of a surrogate mother deprived of parental rights. The drama re- volves around the personality of a politically committed gynaecologist who is the narrator's aunt and has accomplished heroic deeds in applying the birth control policy in Gaomi ..., which combines the author's own birthplace with his imagined republic. It is an epistolary novel in which the narrator writes to a Japanese writer friend, who is called Sugitani Yoshihito ... but whose barely concealed identity is really Kenzaburo Oe. (5) However, the fifth and final section marks a shift into drama, incorporating a play with the same title as the novel. This sophisticated shifting across genres is nonetheless organised in a way that leaves no doubt about the work's actual field of reference; the freshness of certain events in the col- lective memory makes it impossible to read it as pure fiction. It is also quite transparent in its allusion to certain episodes in recent history, such as the abusive compulsory sterilisation and abortion campaigns conducted in Linyi ......, Shandong Province, which is in fact the author's birthplace. (6) Similarly, the name given to Chen the Eyelash ( Chen Mei ... ), (7) the pregnant mother disfigured in a fire that destroyed the Dongli cuddly toys factory (Dongli maorong wanjuchang ...) in Southern China (pp. 230 and 275), unmistakably recalls the fire on 19 November 1993, that destroyed the Zhili toy workshops in Shenzhen (Shenzhen Zhili wan- juchang ...), when 87 male and 85 female workers lost their lives.(8)These dramatic events can easily be identified, whereas others form part of a diffuse range of facts that are perhaps of greater concern because of the way they continue to nag at the social unconscious, as can be seen by the profitable trade in artificial insemination. This openness to political and social realities does not result in a roman à clefor a work with a mes- sage, but rather in a whole network of meanings in which the political un- dergoes a far-reaching reconfiguration. …

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