This strange and unsettling collection of short stories by Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan is guaranteed to stick in the minds of its readers, not just because it is wonderfully written by a man whose country is not as open to foreigners as this book is, but because its reality is so far removed from what any of us have experienced or even imagined. Seven short stories and one novella create a sometimes mystical or mysterious mood, though that mood is oftentimes more akin to horror than to fantasy. Whether one should interpret some of the events described in this collection as dark humor, shocking dramatic irony, or simply as the shocking reality of the various Chinese speakers is a question which readers will have to explore on their own.
Using Northeast Gaomi Township as his setting (the fictionalized name for Dalan Township where the author lives), Mo Yan creates fast-paced narratives in which nature often plays a strong part, not a benevolent nature, but the cruel nature of "tooth and claw." In almost every story, the main character, no matter how honorable, is foiled by outside forces, and sometimes by nature - always a victim with little or no control over his life and destiny.
The seemingly light-hearted novella, "Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh," tells the story of a man who has worked hard for his entire life, suddenly terminated a month before his retirement. When he comes up with a unique way to earn a great deal of money, he feels so guilty that he eventually goes to the authorities to "confess," with surprising and darkly comic results. "Abandoned Child," by contrast, is a shocking story told by a writer (of what appears to be purple prose, judging from his introduction to this story) who finds an abandoned baby only a few hours old. The baby, of course, is a girl, her fate revealing the full horror of the One Child Rule and the life of an abandoned baby, nearly always a girl, along with the long-term effects on the country.
In between these two stories are six others which suggest much about Chinese life - their long enmity with Japan, many legends and folk beliefs associated with nature, the position of women in marriage, and the belief that no matter how honorable one's intentions, the fates will conspire against personal success. The forced abandonment of children by parents conscripted to work for the state, the near starvation of country dwellers, the feeling that the individual is totally unimportant, and the fact that sex is real and love is not, are only a few of the themes which show a bleak picture of Chinese life. Happiness is not even to be a goal among the characters here. The writing is clear and unequivocal, and western readers cannot help but take notice of the contrasts between our cultures, and of these characters' power of sheer endurance in the face of hardship. Highly recommended as an introduction to Mo Yan's work.