Review of “The Garlic Ballads” by Mo Yan

My international literary adventure has moved to China. This dark novel about life in a rural town after the rise of Deng Xiaoping was published in Chinese in 1988 and translated into English in 1995. The translator deserves credit of course, so I would like to congratulate Howard Goldblatt for doing an excellent job. I know nothing about Chinese, but the translator is well known and worked with the author, so it’s probably a pretty good English translation.

I’m not sure where to start.


Hmmm…I’m going to just jump right into the deep end of the pool.

At first, I thought this was a slapstick, black comedy because there was so much head-banging, kicking, and urine drinking. (No that wasn’t a typo.) The author was hung up on physical abuse (short of death) and the central character’s multiple experiences with drinking piss. It added nothing to the story, so it must have been fun to write about. I think (as if I would have any insight into the characters’ lives) it was to demonstrate the miserable state of the peasants who are central to this novel. But it came across as a Marx Brothers’ story, with their abusive behavior towards each other pushed to the point of nausea…

However, there was no laughter in this book, which was the problem because the entire story could have been told in a fraction of the words used. The repetitive beatings, abusive treatment, wailing and moaning about the plight of the peasants, and general patriarchal corruption and familial misbehavior lost its shock factor after twenty or so pages. The ending was as predictable as I imagine a Russian tragedy (I’ll be reading Dostoevsky and Chekov next), with practically mass suicide by the characters, described in hopeless detail. The survivors were either in prison or left to starve…

I lost track of the dialogue because of a complete lack of dialogue tags. He and she was used so much, in conversations with several characters, that I had to reread way too many paragraphs to sort it out, especially since everyone had the same grim, hopeless view of life. This is a dystopian novel of the first degree, right up there with 1984 and A Brave New World, but it didn’t have a message.

The story was broken up, with very few plot markers because all of the characters were the same. There were different threads centered on several characters, but there was no consistent timeline. The scenes jumped around, covering a year or so in current action, with many sudden flashbacks. The disarrayed storyline reminded me of “Catch-Twenty Two.” The disconnected development was exacerbated by the aforementioned abuse of pronouns, and sudden leaps from a third-person, past-tense narrator to a first-person, present tense narrative. What was that about?

Chapters started repeatedly with He, and matters were made more confusing by the characters having only a few surnames because it was a rural village with only a couple of family lineages present. (The translation follows the Chinese convention of surname first.)

And then there was the garlic.

This is a literary drama, which means it uses metaphors and colorful descriptions until the reader is fed up. If I never hear another reference to the smell of garlic or jute, it will be too soon. And what was with everybody having green sparkles associated with their eyes? Even the birds and lizards. And not by one character, but several. Were they all schizophrenic? There were some great metaphors and the hint of good literary fiction, but the author failed to broaden their horizons, metaphorically speaking. Rather than revealing the breadth of the rural experience, they kept jamming the same images down my throat…again and again, until I was fed up.

I can’t recommend this book. I can’t even think of a reason someone would want to read it. The blend of juvenile behavior (e.g., bodily functions), slapstick physical humor that wasn’t funny, and complete hopelessness doesn’t work for me.

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