- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

Over the past 15 years Mo Yan, one of China's leading writers, has produced six novels, three of which ("Red Sorghum," "The Garlic Ballads," and "The Republic of Wine") have been translated into English. Hailed as a Chinese William Faulkner, and a magic realist in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan writes fiction that is an extraordinary blend of fantasy, lyrical descriptions of the Chinese countryside, satirical commentary on government bureaucracy, black (even slapstick) humor and touches of the supernatural. He also makes good use of his own bitter experiences as the child of impoverished peasant farmers in rural Shandong and as a soldier in the People's Liberation Army.
Now comes a collection of his short fiction, Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh (Arcade, $23.95, 224 pages) selected and translated fromt he Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, representing a range of themes and a variety of styles. For readers who are unfamiliar with the work of this Chinese author, these eight stories make a good place to start.
In a 12-page preface to the collection as gripping as any of the stories Mo Yan explains why hunger and loneliness are frequent themes in his work. He and his friends grew up "like a pack of starving dogs," who ate grass, the leaves and bark of trees, even chunks of coal. When a school friend told him he knew of an author who could afford to eat "jiaozi" (tasty little pork dumplings) three times a day, Mo Yan decided to become a writer. Years later he realized that eating one's fill can still be accompanied by pain and suffering and that spiritual distress is no less painful than physical hunger. Even so he says, "For me, writing about the suffering of the soul in no way supplants my concern for the physical agony brought about by hunger."
The title story is the most recent (and has been filmed by Chinese movie director Zhang Yimou as "Happy Days"). On the surface it deals with the downsizing problem facing Chinese industrial workers in the 1990s, but there is more to the tale than that. After 43 years at the Municipal Farm Equipment Factory (which actually makes pull-tab soda cans, not tractors), Ding Shifu is a month away from retirement when he is abruptly laid off. Desperate for a way to make money, he fixes up a broken-down bus in a nearby cemetery and rents it by the hour to frustrated lovers. He tells his wife he has a new job (without relating the tawdry details), the money rolls in, and all goes well until the day when a middle-aged couple enters the bus and doesn't come out. The ending can be read in two ways, one more-or-less conventional, the other hinting at a supernatural explanation.
"Love Story," set in the time of the Cultural Revolution, tells of the awkward courtship of a 15-year-old country boy and a woman of 25, one of the thousands of university students sent from the cities to the countryside for reeducation. Between irrigating cabbages and spreading fertilizer they fall in love, despite differences in age and class. The language veers from ribald (an aging peasant's crude teasing of the shy lovers) to poetic (water in the cabbage patch shines "like splintered silver").
"Man and Beast," continuing the turbulent family saga of "Red Sorghum," Mo Yan's first novel, relates a day in the life of the narrator's grandfather. The man and beast of the title, "granddad" lived for 14 years "like a wolf" alone in an ancient mountain forest when the Chinese battled both Japanese invaders and each other. That he survived to tell the tale is nothing short of miraculous.
The grimmest of these stories, "The Cure," begins with the summary execution of several villagers identified as "traitors to the party." But the main theme is superstition so pervasive that it implicates even the village doctor (who is referred to, tellingly, in the translation as both "physician" and "miracle worker"). His suggested cure for cataracts sets the plot in motion: "If you could get your hands on a human gall bladder … I wouldn't be surprised if your mother's eyesight returned to normal." To fill this gruesome prescription, the old woman's devoted son and grandson take on the bloody business of harvesting a gall bladder from a not-quite-dead corpse. Even here, there's an element of comic relief in a sequence that could well be captioned Laurel-and-Hardy-do-surgery.
"Iron Child" and "Soaring," haunting tales featuring a boy made of iron and a bride who can fly, may be read as fables or as magic realism in the manner of Garcia Marquez.
The last story in the collection, "Abandoned Child," deals with one of China's thorniest problems enforced family planning in a village culture that values boys over girls. We're told that government efforts to implement a one-child policy produced impressive results in the cities, but in the countryside families with more than one child were still the norm in the mid-1980s. Extra girls, though, were not welcome.
In this climate an off-duty soldier, finding a newborn baby girl in a field of sunflowers, wrestles with his conscience. "It would have been unthinkable to abandon her and just as unthinkable to keep her," the first-person narrator muses. Finally he takes the baby home but soon regrets his humanitarian gesture. His wife coldly reminds him that they already have a daughter; desperate for a son, she tells her husband to take the baby back where he found it. However, a local bureaucrat rules that if he puts the baby back, he'll be charged with infanticide should she starve to death.
On the other hand, the official says cheerfully, "If you take this one into your home, that'll make two kids. We'll have to fine you two thousand." Such conundrums abound in Mo Yan's world, and solutions are not easily found.
Mo Yan's prose is rich and strange. Occasionally his abrupt shifts from horror to fantasy to scatological humor and back again can be jarring, but as a whole his work yields a kaleidoscopic view of China's recent history that may or may not be literally true but nonetheless has the ring of truth.

The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction (Modern Library, $23.95, 462 pages) restores to print 26 of Elizabeth Spencer's best stories (including six not previously published) and the Jamesian novella that made her famous, "The Light in the Piazza." The stories offer variations on the author's central preoccupation: women's inner lives and the secrets they harbor.
Always discerning on the subject of parents and their children, Miss Spencer is at her best in "The Master of Shongalo," a quintessential Southern mystery involving a grand old house, a pretty young narrator and an upper-crust family with a problematic past. Most of the other tales are equally rewarding, altogether an excellent introduction to Miss Spencer's substantial and distinctive body of work.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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