In 2012, Mo Yan became the first writer from Mainland China to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize was considered a watershed moment in Chinese literature and it brought Mo’s work to the attention of a much wider audience.
Red Sorghum, published in 1987, is arguably his most famous novel. It tells the tale of three generations of a family who own a rice wine distillery in a village called Gaomi in Shandong. The family’s stories take place against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War and The Cultural Revolution.
Red Sorghum is similar to the magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Just like those writers, Mo mixes myth with reality and while he tells the story of the family from Shandong he also tells the story of his country.
Mo’s writing is unflinchingly honest. There are some particularly crude, but undeniably funny passages; such as when a magistrate makes a fraudster lick honey off the behind of his partner in crime. Mo is just as brutal in his depiction of violence and some of the imagery can be difficult to stomach; most sickeningly of all, when a rebel is skinned alive by soldiers.
Mo can create powerful imagery and is a master of description. While at times the novel is violent and crude, it can also be soulful and beautiful. The red sorghum, the crop from which the novel takes its name, is described throughout and becomes a character of its own.
The narrative regularly jumps to different points in time, sometimes several times in a single chapter. While this may be confusing, Mo uses this to cleverly present his characters, to tease out the plot and control the pace.
If you are looking for a book to read while sunbathing by a swimming pool then Red Sorghum is possibly not the best choice. If you wish to know more about the history and culture of this country or want to read one of its greatest writers, then Red Sorghum is essential reading.