Book Review: Radish by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, controversial Nobel Prize winner, started writing soon after enlisting in the Chinese army in 1976 and published A TRANSPARENT RADISH, here simply titled RADISH, in 1984. It is one of his first published works, and it does feature some flaws typical of early books, but fans will see the writer who would soon publish RED SORGHUM stepping up to bat here (a classic he published just two years later).

Already Mo Yan’s unbridled prose energy is present here (though slightly more reigned in than in later works) and the usual themes of food and hunger waft through the text. The plot centers around a scrawny, sickly mute boy, Hei-Hai, trying (and usually failing) to perform the tasks assigned to him by a work brigade. The other main characters are the blacksmith he works under, a mason, and the maiden Juzi, who meet each other through Hei-Hai and become embroiled in a love triangle.

The novella is mostly character driven, and for that it suffers. In a book of this length it’s difficult to fully describe characters, leaving the main characters more archetypes with one or two distinguishing details than fully formed, and some side characters are one dimensional and don’t appear nearly enough. Those new to Mo Yan, beware that he does not have a kind view of humankind. His fiction is a cruel world where miserable things happen to almost everyone and even the characters the reader is supposed to root for have awful qualities. If you need a sympathetic character (or an uplifting ending), Mo Yan might not be for you.

Still, the plot never flags. I was never on the edge of my seat but I also ever wanted to put it down. I have heard that after the Nobel Prize, some high school students in China are now required to read this, and after reading, despite the flaws, it is not hard to see why. English readers, however, might get less out of this than a Chinese reader, due to cultural differences. The descriptions of the work brigade would obviously resonate more with those familiar with Chinese culture.

Interestingly, little of the magical realism that Mo Yan is famous for is present here. Other than a brief appearance by a “transparent radish,” there is nothing, and those not expecting it might be thrown off by the sudden appearance of a see-through vegetable. By the end of the text, though, the metaphor of the radish makes sense. I highlight this not because it is a negative, but rather because it hints at an early Mo Yan more grounded in reality than his later metafictional, mystical works. Considering a lot of his novels revolve around those elements, what would a realistic Mo Yan be like?

Overall, RADISH very obviously an early work, but its pros outweigh its cons by a good margin. It is probably not the best place to start exploring Mo Yan or his country’s literature, but with its cheap e-book price, anyone already acquainted with those will find something interesting here.

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