Soon after they come into power in China, the Communists killed numerous landowners. Ximen Nao is a fictional landowner based off of those condemned. Through sheer stubbornness, he manages to convince the Lord of the Underworld, Lord Yama, to grant him another chance at life, which Yama agrees to but with a twist: Ximen Nao is reincarnated as a donkey. The novel follows him and others from his town through most post-1950 Chinese events.
The first section features Ximen Nao as a donkey, but he doesn’t stay in this form for long. Each part has Nao reincarnated from various animals, from a dog to a bigheaded baby. And although he provides the crux of the novel, he is not the only narrator: the son of Nao’s former servant also has a voice. The narration style has been criticized as being hard to follow at times, but I never thought this was the case. At first it is not clear to whom the narrators are telling these stories, but it never hampers the narrative and after a few chapters it becomes obvious.
Out of the books I’ve read by Mo Yan, this is by far my favorite (although it is by no means perfect). There is hardly a dull moment in the 550+ page book. His satiric pen is on full display here (parodying some of the odder moments in China’s Communist chapter, such as the Great Sparrow Campaign), as is his unrestrained prose style. For those who think less is more or enjoy the terse styles of Camus or Hemingway, this probably is not the right book for you; for those who enjoy Faulkner or Marquez’s verbosity, you will find more of what you love in Mo Yan.
Actually, the comparisons to those latter two writers run deeper than just on the writing level. Mo Yan was influenced by both of them. The various techniques Faulkner uses throughout his own pieces are present in LIFE AND DEATH. The family chronicle as Mo Yan depicts it here seem to me reminiscent of the one Marquez wrote in ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.
But, as I said, this is not a perfect novel. Towards the end, during one of Ximen Nao’s last reincarnations (the monkey), it is almost like Mo Yan realized he needed to wrap up the book quickly and speeds through. As a result, it seems unfinished and unsatisfying. A lot more could have come from this bit or it could have been edited out. In this half-assed form, it just doesn’t work.
Aside from that, there are few problems with the text. The first time I read THE GARLIC BALLADS, I knew Mo Yan had it in him to write something truly great; to me, this is him fulfilling that. A great work of not just Chinese but world literature.
(Fun fact: Mo Yan wrote this in 42 days when he was suffering from bad insomnia. I can find nothing about how much editing took place afterward, but knowing Mo Yan and how prolific he is, it would not surprise me if there was only a minimal amount. Another fun fact: though the title in English is a mouthful, it is probably the best possible rendering of the literal Chinese title, which translates directly into something like “Life-Death Fatigue.”)