Mo Yan is one of China’s most legendary renegade authors and voices of social protest: his work has been banned, pirated, circulated underground, and fortunately translated into English. His novels are primarily social commentary, and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out may be his most ambitious project yet. It tells the story of Ximen Nao, an independent farmer in the early days of China’s Revolution, who is shot for his refusal to join the Communist Party. After suffering the worst torments of Hell for two years, he still refuses to admit guilt for his actions. After withstanding an hour of deep frying, Hell’s worst punishment, he is granted an audience with the King of Hell, where he demands to return to Earth so he may “ask those people to their face what [he] was guilty of.” His request is granted, and on January 1, 1950, he returns to Earth—as a donkey.
For the next fifty years, through various animal reincarnations, Ximen learns what he was guilty of: not ascribing to the cruel hypocrisies and absurd sycophancy of the Communist Party. The human cast lives out China’s fifty-year drama of ascent from agrarian nation to First World industrial juggernaut, which Ximen is condemned to observe from the pained position of an outsider who cannot help the ones he loves, especially when their good souls become warped by the Revolution.
The story is also told by Lan Jiefang, the son of Ximen’s wife and farmhand, born the same day as Ximen the Donkey. Lan is a child of the Revolution and provides a sympathetic human face to balance against Ximen’s forced detachment. As son of the last independent farmer in China (all others have joined the “voluntary” commune), he sees the worst of the Cultural Revolution firsthand.
Though rich with soulful scorn for Chinese society and the frailty of human nature, the novel’s most appealing aspect is its over-the-top humor, employing Mo’s characteristic hyberbole, magical realism, and a diction which oscillates between the exotic and the amusingly profane. The world Mo creates is strangely distant but painfully familiar, slapstick but deadly serious—something of Kurt Vonnegut but far more outrageous: “The loudspeakers blared so loud a farmer’s wife had a miscarriage, a pig ran headlong into a wall and knocked itself out, a whole roost of laying hens took to the air, and local dogs barked themselves hoarse.” This humor permeates every level of the narrative, making the novel an absurd and addictive joy to read. But these jokes have barbs: they stem from utmost indignation and condemn every subject they touch.
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out has the feeling of self-aware folklore. Its setting is almost universally pastoral and is peopled with character types, not realistic individuals. There is not only reincarnation but intrusion by the author as well; all in all, while the subject matter is modern, the form definitely isn’t. It’s easy to be fooled by this veneer of fairy-tale simplicity, but what’s actually happening is high-order literary manipulation delicately choreographed by Mo. Just when the reader becomes lulled into traditional fairy-tale tropes, Mo strikes with hyper-realistic violence that simply stuns. The novel may at first seem like a representational fantasy, but it soon becomes clear how close to reality this world is. Despite the character-typing, this is not a stereotypical work. Mo’s magical realism isn’t a film over China’s real history but a carefully managed frame: the reader gains a genuine and emotionally charged sense of China from an insider, albeit in a rich postmodern way.
The last third of the novel feels too loose; Mo’s careful management of his huge cast and rumbling, snickering story seem to unravel a little. But I find this forgivable in consideration of the ending, which not only reveals why the King of Hell keeps reincarnating Ximen as animals, but also portrays contemporary China in all its capitalist glory and decadence (Mo is just as harsh on China today as China of the ‘60s). In this section, characters also seem to develop more rounded emotions and personalities, as if they were emerging from a past made mythic by history into a sharply recognizable present. Not only will this console readers who demand more fleshed-out characters, but it also serves as a retrograde reminder that the previous reading is just as real, for all its literary antics. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is a postmodern fairy tale brimming with spiked satire, and more importantly, stunning integrity.