I personally found the novel not so satisfying or engaging.
Mo Yan’s ‘Frog’
By JULIA LOVELL
Julia Lovell teaches modern Chinese history at Birkbeck, University of London. Her most recent book is “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China.”
FEB. 6, 2015A version of this review appears in print on February 8, 2015, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review
In October 2012, Mo Yan became the first citizen of mainland China to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since then, he has been attacked both inside and outside China for his collaboration with the Communist literary establishment: for his vice chairmanship of the state writers’ association, for remarking that censorship falls in the same category as airport security. In the summer of 2012, he controversially hand-copied, for a special commemorative edition, part of the 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” Mao Zedong’s statement of orthodoxy on the arts that became the theoretical ur-text of Chinese socialist realism and literary censorship. Yet readers will find little in “Frog,” Howard Goldblatt’s fluent translation of Mo Yan’s 2009 novel about his country’s one-child policy, that validates the society created by the Chinese Communist Party. It is an anarchic, brutal book about the inhumanity of servants of the Communist state, the inadequacy of Chinese men and the moral vacuum at the heart of post-Mao China.
Set in the rural northeast, the novel focuses primarily on the life and times of the narrator Xiaopao’s aunt, Gugu, from her birth in 1937 to her retirement in the early years of this century. In the brave new world of the early People’s Republic, Gugu possesses impeccable political credentials. The daughter of a Communist doctor killed in the latter stages of World War II, Gugu herself is held prisoner for several months by the Japanese Army. After the Communist “liberation” in 1949, she trains as a midwife in the new medical schools and becomes a star obstetrician in the area around her home village. In 1960, however, political catastrophe strikes: Her pilot fiancé defects to Communist China’s bitterest enemy, Taiwan, and Gugu becomes, by association, politically toxic. Like many others, she is beaten and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. Yet this rough treatment doesn’t alienate her from the Party. Quite the contrary: She vows to prove her devotion by ruthlessly implementing the government’s policy against unauthorized births, which was introduced in the late 1970s after Mao’s death. Aided by her steadfast intern, Little Lion, Gugu imposes a reign of terror involving compulsory IUDs, vasectomies and late-term abortions. Eventually, after two women die at her hands (including the narrator’s wife), Gugu’s zeal for “family planning” fades. In retirement, she devotes herself to making thousands of dolls representing the fetuses she destroyed. Meanwhile, Xiaopao marries Little Lion, despite the role she played in the forced abortion that killed his first wife.
Those anticipating an analysis of Gugu’s innermost psychology will be disappointed. Throughout the book, Mo Yan’s narrative attention darts here and there: Picaresque street fights sprawl across a dozen pages; a delusional villager hallucinates confusingly, convinced he is Don Quixote. Toward the end, Gugu drifts out of view as the narrative closes in on Little Lion’s unsuccessful attempts to have a child of her own. In a fantastical twist that’s all too believable in the commercial landscape of post-Mao China, a nearby bullfrog farm turns out to be a front for a human surrogacy business. Chen Mei (a young woman whose mother died during childbirth thanks to Gugu’s persecutions and who has herself been grotesquely disfigured by a fire in the factory where she was working to pay the government fine levied at her birth) serves as a surrogate mother for Xiaopao and Little Lion’s child. Yet Mo Yan does characterize Gugu sufficiently for the reader to deduce a skeleton psychology: the swaggering uncouthness produced by a Communist education, the desperation to prove herself a good Party member, the dazed guilt this generates in her later years.
Mo Yan has made his name and his fortune as a best-selling novelist. I sometimes wonder, though, if his heart lies in more visual, linguistically pared-down literary genres — in drama and opera. His 2001 historical novel, “Sandalwood Death,” played out against an imagined soundtrack of the Maoqiang opera found in northeast China. And the most effective part of “Frog” is the final one, written as a nine-act play depicting the mistreatment of Chen Mei after she has given birth to Xiaopao’s surrogate child. By concentrating only on dialogue, Mo Yan zooms in on the surreal horror of Chen Mei’s situation as she is tricked out of her 50,000 yuan surrogacy fee. Battling the trauma of giving up her baby, she must fight for her rights through a system that seems determined to humiliate her at every turn.
“Frog” will inevitably be compared with “The Dark Road,” an unremittingly bleak novel about the one-child policy published by the exile author Ma Jian in 2012. On the face of it, the two books are very different. Ma Jian’s is, for the most part, written in a spare, matter-of-fact tone that projects a relentlessly desolate view of China. Mo Yan, by contrast, favors a language of excess, notable for its manic mix of registers, for its graphic descriptions of gore, for its crude and hyperbolic dialogue (“One sniff tells me what kind of fart you’ve just laid”) and for its facetious in-jokes about famous foreign writers (García Márquez and Joyce being two particular favorites). Mo Yan’s portrayal of the pursuit of women carrying unauthorized fetuses sometimes verges troublingly on the slapstick.
While Ma Jian crams his pages with references to tragedies and injustices from China’s present and recent past, Mo Yan skips nimbly over some of the key political taboos of the Communist era. The period from 1953 to 1957 is evoked as a golden age of peace and prosperity (“With plenty to eat and good warm clothing, the people’s mood was one of well-being”), while both Chinese and Western histories of this era point to the use of terror to humiliate and destroy perceived threats to the Communist state and the economic destruction wrought by helter-skelter collectivization. Mo Yan also whitewashes the causes of the appalling famine of 1959-61 (the soil, he writes, “refused to grow anything”) despite the fact that scholars see Communist economic mismanagement and ruthless grain requisitions as the cause of upward of 30 million deaths across these years. Those who know the history of this period will note the tactical omissions; the less well informed may be misled by the novel’s historical soft focus.
Nonetheless, a careful reading of both “Frog” and “The Dark Road” will reveal that these two novels are perhaps not so divergent in their conclusions about the contemporary People’s Republic. Both describe a country that has lost its way, a land in which a repressive state has rendered individuals incapable of making independent moral judgments about political, economic and social behavior and in which women continue to suffer at the hands of reckless male politicians and son-fixated husbands. It was, after all, Mao’s encouragement of population growth in the 1950s and ’60s that led the population to almost double between 1953 and 1982. At one point in “Frog,” as a postpartum mother harried by Gugu into premature birth dies, her husband is too distraught, discovering that the new baby is a girl, even to notice his wife’s passing. Mo Yan’s account of the one-child policy is less overwhelmingly harsh than that of Ma Jian, but if the vice chairman of the official writers’ association takes such a dark view of its impact, then the reality must be utterly harrowing.