Translated by Howard Goldblatt (from Chinese)
Originally 1988, I read Arcade 2012
286 pages, satire, romance, prison story
The farmers in Paradise County are normal, law-abiding citizens under the Chinese communist regime. They follow the government's orders to plant a bumper crop of garlic, only to end up with piles of unsellable rotting crops as warehouses fill up and prices drop precipitously. When the government does nothing to help the crowds of farmers struggling to move their goods anywhere but back home, the ordinary citizens are forced to take extreme measures to see that something will get done.
Among the farmers watching their carefully-tended crops rot in their fields are a collection of very human characters: parents trying to arrange marriages for their children; their daughter who is in love with another man; and a neighbor whose landowning family history makes him an immediate suspect for any crime.
Mo Yan's novel, which was banned in China after the 1989 Tiananmen square protests, paints a vivid portrait of the common man's daily struggle for survival under an uncaring, corrupt, and draconian regime.
Buy from Amazon:The Garlic Ballads: A Novel
The Politics of Catch-22s
As other reviewers have noted, The Garlic Ballads resembles nothing so much as a rural Chinese version of Joseph Heller's famous war novel Catch-22. Heller's novel, which describes the plight of a group of airmen during World War 2, introduces the concept of the Catch-22, a set of mutually contradictory rules and regulations that make it impossible for the characters to escape the bureaucracy of their organization. An example from Heller's work is the following:
If the character is sane, he has to fly more missions at the risk of his life. Asking to be checked for insanity (and therefore to be excused from flying more missions) demonstrates the character's sanity. No one can be checked for insanity without requesting it. So there is no way to escape from the bureaucratic imperative.
As both Heller and Mo Yan's books demonstrate, this is really just a way to use a kind of false logic and doublespeak to keep the lower-class people powerless and in their place.
Mo Yan's book deals with the real psychological and social effects of various types of Catch-22s. Most important is also the central theme of the book: peasants are ordered to plant garlic, but this garlic is then not bought by the government. The characters are forced to drag their rapidly putrifying crops to market again and again, taking hours to get there and ultimately being unable to sell anything. There is a pungent sense of hopelessness throughout the book - and it smells like rotting garlic.
The characters encounter another round of Catch-22 when they are brought into police custody. According to their interrogators, the prisoners can either confess to all the charges and be treated less badly or deny the charges, in which case they will be tortured until they confess. Not knowing is not a solution, but at the same time lying will also be punished. Again, the odor of garlic - expressed from the prisoners' own bodies during torture! - emphasizes the ultimate futility of their actions.
Remembering back to my high-school English class in which I first read Catch-22, I find the similarities between Mo Yan and Heller's works to be a stunning testament to the way individuals and governments use power. Catch-22 is generally accepted to be a satire about the abuses that happen under capitalist governments. Capitalism provides incentive for those who are in power to keep others out of power, using techniques such as Catch-22s. So what does it mean when Mo Yan's book, set in a Communist state, demonstrates the same frustration with authority that is found in capitalism?
Briefly, this book is a testament to the way power corrupts individuals. In this rural setting, the high ideals of the Communist revolution are overlooked in favor of keeping the peasants in their place, often through physical violence. These actions could take place anywhere in the world, under any kind of government, regardless of the ideals with which that government was founded.
Abuse, political and familial
Mo Yan's numerous, explicit descriptions of physical abuse and torture deserve a trigger warning. While most of the torture is done by agents of the state for political reasons, other instances are based on familial pride.
The love story, for instance, is plagued by resistance by the girl's family, who have arranged another marriage for her and their two sons. While the law officially bans arranged marriages, the actual situation in Paradise County allows them. When the girl resists, she is beaten by her father, who asserts his right to do so based on the fact that she is his child, and, importantly, a useless, disposable girl. When the lovers run away to the next county, they are caught by her brothers who beat the erstwhile husband to within an inch of his life by permission of a local official who is present.
This and other violence is, essentially, senseless. It does not accomplish anything, and can probably be viewed as a way to vent the individuals' frustration with their lives. The senselessness of the violence is especially explicit when one of the characters is arrested and tortured, and then released the next day with a fine. The police have other things to do than to actually get the answer out of him.
Overall, I thought this book was a beautifully gripping, tragic exploration of power struggles in rural China. I enjoyed it much more than his other novel, Frog.