Mo Yan, Explosion (2004 French, 1991 English)

It’s only when I browsed the library shelf yesterday that I realized that I’ve forgotten to post any review about this novella by Chinese author Mo Yan. Not that it was so bad that it slipped at the back of my mind. No, in reality it was so shocking and harrowing a read that my unconscious (my id, my superego or whatever) had vigorously blocked the book and kicked it to the deeper parts of my brain.

Mo Yan is a contemporary Chinese writer who doesn’t shy away from tackling the most terrible scenes. He’s blunt and doesn’t spare the reader. He apparently belongs to the school of new realism, even if I doubt it’s an established school, but sometimes his writing drifts towards magical realism. I’ve read several books of his before, and his earliest fame in the Western world comes from his novel Red Sorghum, which has been made into a movie by Zhang Yimou, but this one was set in the past which is rather atypical for Mo Yan’s books.

Explosion is set in the contemporary Chinese countryside, as most of his books. A low level Communist party member, who lives in the city, comes back to his parents’ home because his wife, a peasant older than he is, is pregnant. Don’t bother thinking about wedding shower, if this concept ever existed in China. This future baby is the second one after a small girl. Because of Chinese restrictive birth laws, this baby just cannot be brought to life. Especially in a party member’s family. But on the other side, there is the century-old Chinese tradition that girls are worth less than boys, because they can’t inherit the land and will be married off. So the main character’s parents and wife (who was married to him as part of a interfamily agreement without his consent) want very much to keep the child, even if it means bribing an official or paying a fee. But it just can’t be, even if the narrator himself doesn’t really seem convinced of the ideological fairness of this rule.

Some scenes are hard. Son and father physically fight. Husband and wife fight too. And he drags her by force to the hospital. At the hospital, they have to wait because the room is already occupied by another woman in labor. More harrowing scenes, punctuated by a dreamlike chase after a fox, a magical creature, both terrifying and miraculous. The fox part was really good, you can’t know whether it’s a dream or reality, and the narrator soon identifies with the fox, chased around and not free at all.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a first taste at Chinese lit or Mo Yan. Nor would I recommend it to squeamish readers. But it has honed my appetite for more Mo Yan. Let’s hope it won’t be so terrible next time.

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