New Internationalist

Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh

Issue 345

by Mo Yan translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chum Lin

In an illuminating introduction to this collection, Mo Yan identifies the roots of his writing impulse as hunger and loneliness. His childhood experiences in provincial China during the Cultural Revolution were of terrible famine and, as the village cowherd, long periods of isolation. His prime motivations as a writer, he reveals, were simply to talk and talk and thereby fill his belly. This refreshing lack of cant shines out in these darkly comic stories whose unifying thread is a concern for the ordinary individual struggling against an implacable and corrupt bureaucratic machine.

The title story tells of Ding Shikou who, after 43 years of work and one month away from retirement, is laid off. Forced to find another source of income, he hits on the idea of renting out a hut in the woods to courting couples. His entrepreneurial scheme is a success, but has results he hadn’t bargained for.

The story ‘Abandoned Child’ tackles the friction between the notorious one-child policy and the pervasive rural notion that female children are second best. ‘Man and Beast’ picks up narrative threads from Mo Yan’s most famous novel Red Sorghum and ‘The Cure’ is a searing tale of arbitrary executions and nightmarish brutality. The most recently written story, ‘Shen Garden’, is a poignant account of a middle-aged man coming to terms with compromised choices and abandoned dreams.

Mo Yan thoroughly deserves his Western reputation as one of China’s foremost writers and this excellent collection is a great place to start for those unfamiliar with the work of this splendidly spirited author.

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