Our narrator’s grandparents and father are legendary. Family members and friends tell stories of how the narrator’s grandmother helped defeat the Japanese or how his grandfather was king of bandits in Shandong Province. The story of the narrator’s family is the story of China in the twentieth century: tragic, violent, and haunting. In Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, originally serialized in China in the 1980s and later translated into English by Howard Goldblatt, the narrator tells us the real stories behind the legends.
The narrator’s history of his family meanders all over the first half of the twentieth century. That said, he frequently circles back to the early 1920s—when his grandfather the bandit abducted his grandmother—and 1938—when his grandmother was killed and war came to their patch of Shandong. Each time the narrator revisits a seminal moment in the family history, he will follow another family member to provide a new perspective or backtrack even further to provide context. Very rarely, the narrator will hint at events that came later.
The real stories behind the legend are almost uniformly awful. Within the first 50 pages, a man is flayed to death by the local butcher, who was coerced by invading Japanese. As I read about the atrocities and deaths during the Sino-Japanese War, I was constantly a) confronted by how little I knew about Chinese history and b) repeatedly horrified by what people did to each other during those years. (What I do know is that a lot of people escaped justice for their crimes.) Because the narrator is writing the story of his family and their home village, we never learn the context for all the violence, which I think gives the deaths and pain and misery its full weight. One of the most affecting parts of the novel is a scene in which the narrator visits All-Souls Grave, where so many people from the village were buried together after fighting Japanese and “puppet” troops, after a flood exposes a lot of the bones. The narrator says:
I could see the skeletons at the bottom of the pit, piles of bones exposed to the sun for the first time in all those years. I doubt even the provincial party secretary could have told which of them belonged to Communists, which to Nationalists, which to Japanese soldiers, which to puppet soldiers, and which to civilians. The skulls all had the exact same shape, and all had been thrown into the same heap. (203*)
Years later, it does not matter who killed who and why (if it ever mattered at all). In the end, all you have are a lot of people who died terribly who should have lived.
Against all this violence, the narrator constantly comments on the growing red sorghum that is the region’s main crop. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it, even if I was much more interested in the human parts of the story.) Nearly every time a character is hurt or killed, the narrator will report that the sorghum is growing in spite of the chaos, as if to say that something will live on after all this. It’s not a hopeful image by any means. To me, it reinforced the pointlessness of all the violent striving of the humans.
I originally picked up Red Sorghum thinking to add it to my list of global reading recommendations, but I don’t know if I can do it. There are some scenes of stomach-turning violence. I know it’s based on real history and the stories the narrator recounts so doubt tell us much about northeastern China in the twentieth century. (If I knew more of the history, I would probably have gotten more out of this book because I have a sneaking suspicion that the family’s history can be mapped against larger Chinese history.) While I have recommended books in the past by saying to potential readers,”This book will mess you up,” I have not yet handed over a book and said to a reader, “This book will probably make you throw up.” I suppose all I can really say is that Red Sorghum might help you understand what Chinese people went through between 1920 and 1945 and that it’s a very tough read.
* Quote is from the 1993 hardcover edition by Viking and translated by Howard Goldblatt.