By Mo Yan
I watched the film, Red Sorghum, years ago, but was curious to see what the book was like.
With the movie as a comparison point, the novel is quite interesting. The film does follow some of the scenes from the book fairly closely, such that when I got to certain parts of the book, I distinctly remembered the corresponding scene in the movie. That being said, the movie and the novel dramatically differ in structure. Whereas the movie follows a linear storyline, the book hops back and forth in time, almost in a circular manner. The narrator say will mention an incident, talk about an event that happened before that, then an event that happened well after and then perhaps 100 pages later revisit the first incident in more detail and then again 50 pages with further detail.
The non-linearity is different that used by self-aware, post-modernist authors, who do so to build up to a surprise ending. The narrator refers to the protagonists as Granddad, Grandmother and Dad, which together with the non-linear structure, make the novel come across as a long multi-day, oral story that one of your parents would tell you about their parents and grandparents. And the non-linearity comes from the narrator, remembering more details about an event, once they've started talking about something different but related.
Admittedly, the non-linearity and the referral to the protagonists as Granddad, etc. confused me at times, as to who was doing what. But the novel was interesting enough to force myself to reread passages and figure out what was going on.
The content itself covers the span of about 40-50 years, ranging from how Granddad (Yu Zhan'ao) met Grandmother and their difficult relationship as well to Dad growing up with Grandad during violent and fend-for-yourself times. The content of the novel does touch upon historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of China during WWII and the growing Communist movement within the country, but the novel is anchored primarily as a personal tale.
In that historical era, there were some gruesome atrocities and they are described in detail, so those readers sensitive to violence would be good to be wary. In general, the writing is fairly descriptive of people, the sights and smells and the protagonists' emotions. However, the tone in which the violent acts occur is even-handed and neutral, helping bring home the fact that everyday life was brutal and almost barbarian.
I'll end this with a lengthy quote, which touches upon all of the things I've mentioned:
Then when he [Granddad] was thirteen, his mother began an affair with the abbot at Tianqi Monastery. The well-to-do monk often brought rice and noodles over, and every time he came, Yu Zhan'ao's mother sent the boy outside. Flames of anger raged inside him as sounds of revelry emerged from behind the closed door, and he could barely keep from torching the house. By the time he was sixteen, his mother was seeing the monk so frequently that the village was buzzing. A friend of his, Little Cheng the blacksmith, made him a short sword, with which he murdered the monk one drizzly spring night beside Pear Blossom Creek, named for the trees that lined it. They were in bloom on the wet night, blanketing the area with their delicate fragrance.
Granddad fled the village after the incident, taking odd jobs and finally getting hooked on gambling. Over time his skills improved until the copper coins that passed through his hands stained his fingers green. Then, when Nine Dreams Cao, whose favorite pastime was nabbing gamblers, became magistrate of Gaomi County, he was arrested for gambling in a graveyard, given two hundred lashes with a shoe sole, forced to wear a pair of pants with one red leg and one black one, and sentenced to sweeping the streets of the count town for two months. When he'd completed his sentence he wandered into Northeast Gaomi Township, where he hired out to the service company. Upon learning that, after the death of the monk, his mother had hanged herself from the door frame, he went back one night to take a last look around. Some time later, the incident with my grandma occurred.