Mo Yan, Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh (Eng. 2002, French 2004)

How come I’m awfully late for posting comments on books I’ve already finished? Maybe because of my personal life being seasonally hectic, or is it that I read more books or shorter books? I still don’t want to miss any of them out, so I’ll try and catch up.

This novella is published in English as part of a collection of short stories, but in France, where short story isn’t “noble” enough, it was published independently. I read it in one stint and didn’t laugh that much, because it was so darkly realistic. It reminded me of daily life in China, with a funny twist though.

Ding is an old, respected foreman in a Chinese factory (Shifu means Master, a name you get when you’re respected in your job). One month before his retirement, the factory goes bankrupt and all the employees find themselves deprived of any money to live, and Ding of his hard-earned retirement fund. There is no social system in China and bankruptcy was a big risk for all the factories that had failed to modernize and get ready for free market capitalism in the late 1980s early 1990s. The respected old man realizes but slowly that he has been let down and must find a solution on his own. He wants to appeal to the municipal council that has promised to help, but as they ignore him, he’s just too polite to create a stir. He’s too old, weak and dignified to become a street hawker like his younger colleagues, or to invent scams like charging a fee for a public toilet. But eventually, in desperation, he discovers an abandoned van in a public park and he decides to make it a love-nest to rent out by the hour, mostly for illicit couples.

Even though he speaks of a grim situation and could easily veer towards a squalid or sleazy description, Mo Yan still manages to arouse compassion and sympathy for his main character. Mo Yan’s dark humour leads the old man towards a very ill-reputed new business, but he remains innocent at heart and well-meaning. He’s not a one-dimensionally good guy, as he can be harsh towards his old wife. One funny, albeit sweet scene shows how they reconcile in bed, as the new business of his has awaken his sex drive (You can guess how such a love scene between mature people is unconventional for Chinese literature!). But Ding doesn’t judge his customers badly and try to rip them off, even taking the risk to be ripped off himself. It’s a sensitive and yet realist portrait of an old man who tries his best to adapt to the new, ruthless Chinese society in order to survive.

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