Book Review: The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt (Translator)

The Garlic BalladsThe Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brutal, unyielding, and flummoxing in its violent telling, The Garlic Ballads may have been more aptly titled, The Garlic Laments. This book is shocking and nearly absurd in its rampaging cruelty. I spent most of my time reading it with my eyes bulging from their sockets and my mouth agape. The inhumanity, the senseless, unthinking savagery that human beings are capable of meting our to one another is extraordinary and ghoulish. In these 300 pages I have come across more spilled blood, guts, gore, excrement, pus, beating, and trouser-soiling than ever before. And that is just the physical barbarism of it.

In my place of privilege in this world, and in this time and age, there is a fiendishness; a raw animalistic quality to savagery that I am largely unaccustomed to. It’s something that occurred to me frequently, for, in the tradition of literature written about China’s Cultural Revolution and its years of Communist rule, depictions of a terribly hard life are not unusual. Yet, this novel takes it to an entirely different level. I thought Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was a painfully difficult read. Well, this book has knocked that out of the spot.

“People can endure anything.”

What struck me most was the utter… shamelessness of the writing. It is bald, naked, and unflinching honest. It has such a boldness; such an unapologetic representation of a terrible time. I think of the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi regime and the utter deparavity and ruthlessness of humankind. I think about how we, as a generation, are brought up with certain reverence for that time and and and avoidable sense of shame for the holocaust. And yet these times in China were not very removed from that experience. But we are not sensitised to this; we are not programmed for it in our textbooks and our socio-political and historical conversations. So reading about it in this fashion is a slap on the face. How unembroidered and stark the words lay upon the page.

It is not unlike pornography, this kind of reading. Nothing is couched. Nothing is veiled. And nothing quite prepares you for what the next page brings. I experienced a horrific vicariousness – I could not bear to put to down despite its torrential telling of unimaginable horrors: the life of farmers, prison incarceration, the sheer impossibility of every day life. Day in and day out of ceaseless hardship. Utterly heartbreaking lives on bare display, like a careless museum curation. Just, there for our viewing and consumption. I can only imagine the guts it took to write, or maybe I am speaking from my ivory tower again.

What a shockingly remarkable book. What a difficult, frustrating read. I reeked of guilt throughout the reading. Guilt, seems to have the odor of overripe, rotting garlic stalks left in the sun and rain too long.

“I’m not crying. I’m not crying.”

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