Mo Yan – Big Breasts and Wide Hips

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Once again the remaindered bookshop came up with the goods.  Four for £10 is great value when even one of the books is as big and bold as this.

This novel tells the story of one family, indeed one mother, Shangguan Lu, born in 1900, who has 8 daughters by several different men, and finally a boy child.  This mater-familias is the progenitor of a family that lives through the different political and social events of China’s c20 history.

There is social and political comment throughout this novel.  Shangguan Lu’s first two daughters are the offspring of a liaison with her uncle, as her own husband is both violent towards her and unable to provide her with children. Here, as with many other aspects of the book, my lack of knowledge of Chinese culture made the subtler nuances difficult to understand, but whatever the subtleties here, the condemnation of the treatment of women, and the concomitant criticism of the male figures is pretty clear.  Shangguan Lu is the suffering Chinese peasant throughout the novel, a powerless victim of the different political movements and events that swept over China – the Japanese invasion, the Long March, the Chinese Civil War, the triumph of communism, the cultural revolution and finally the rise of capitalism.  Her daughters epitomise this struggle, the first one marrying a patriotic warlord fighting the Japanese who later becomes a turncoat, and each of the others marrying significant players in political events, so that the small town they live in becomes a microcosm of China itself.

As you can imagine then, this is a book crammed full of characters and events as we are taken through the series of wars, revolutions, catastrophes and political changes that occurred in China during this time.  Mo Yan evokes these events with descriptions that from the first page are dramatic and original. There is nothing ordinary about this China, which is a beautiful country peopled with strong and unusual characters; nature itself is beautiful, wild, dramatic and often threatening, hostile to life despite its obvious fecundity. In the introduction we learn that Mo Yan claimed to have been exposed to magic realism, but not influenced by it.  I find that a little difficult to believe as there are so many elements of what I like about magic realism in the descriptions and events here.

The novel opens with the conception of the male child, fathered by a Swedish pastor, and the narrative voice is his even as he blinks and sucks at the breast of his mother.  Shangguan Lu’s earlier life is told in a flashback, and the book is a dense and gripping narrative of great imagination.  It covers much of the same ground as Wild Swans by Yung Chang, but that was a book I could never finish: by the time of the third generation of women I couldn’t face the pain which was described in realistic detail.  This fictionalised account was easier to bear.

I’d never heard of Mo Yan which just goes to show my ignorance, as he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2012.  I’d certainly recommend this book, but not if you’re looking for an easy read or a gripping thriller.  It’s harder work than that.

Amazon Link

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