19 November 2013

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan

I really enjoyed Mo Yan's Pow! (totally, if you judge by my blog post. Ugh.), so I was looking forward to reading Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, but the length intimidated me a little. Once again, however, I found myself completely engrossed. I simply didn't have the time to fly through this in a few days the way I would have liked to, but more the most part, I read it greedily, in 1-2 hour chunks, gulping down as much as I could. Mo Yan is truly a master. There is something so completely winning and wonderful in his characters; despite their many flaws and frustrations, you cannot help but love them. Life and Death is all the more remarkable because the main character is, for the most part, an animal, and yet it remains totally convincing, and you find yourself totally identifying with how it must feel to be a male donkey who has just scented a female in heat. The only other book that immediately springs to mind as providing such an effective insight into the animal mind is Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (which I remember fondly, though apparently I was slightly less enthusiastic when I read it, which is weird, because I remember guiltily passing up opportunities to sight-see in Sofia, Bulgaria, in favor of reading it, so I must have enjoyed it quite a bit), but Mo Yan, astonishingly, manages to give each different animal a different worldview. The novel tells the story of a man's repeated reincarnations, each time into a new animal, but always in the same village he lived in as a human. Gradually, his human memories and attitude fade away, and he begins relating to the cast of people in a different way -- another very impressive aspect of the book. Meanwhile, he is also witnessing momentous changes in Chinese history, another magisterial stroke. Amusingly enough, when discussing Pow! I speculated that it was more charming than Gombrowicz because it didn't involve narcissistic meta-fiction. So, Life and Death does have a meta-fictional component, and while I was not crazy about it, and it was a little bit narcissistic, it was also at least kind of interesting, and sort of sweet. Similarly, the ending initially seemed a bit hasty and haphazard, but ultimately it actually kind of won me over.
The book is just so, so good. You should read it.

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