RED SORGHUM is one of those novels that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It has introduced me to the Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan and has lit my spark to read every word he’s written. And that’s a spark I need to chase into whatever dark corner it leads me, because the siren’s call of this unique and uniquely talented writer is too strong a lure to ignore. I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve read many different types of books. The stylistic differences are legion, but distances between them seem to shrink a little with each new book you ingest. But RED SORGHUM occupies an isolated plot of real estate in an increasingly crowded literary community.
The first thing that struck me about the book was Mo’s language. From the jump it soars like a falcon on the air currents over the sorghum. His choice of words is inspired, and his prose assumes a poetic tint that infects you from the first page. And before I go any further I have to give credit here to Howard Goldblatt. I’ve never before read a book written in a language other than English that made me so deeply appreciate the translator’s responsibility and the challenges he or she has to overcome in conveying a story, its intellectual heft, and its emotional resonance. However evocative and lyrical Mo Yan’s Chinese text is, I and most of you would miss out on it without Goldblatt’s exemplary English translation (okay, I have no idea what he had to sacrifice in translation, but I’d be stunned if it was much).
More than one critic has compared Mo Yan to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it is easy to compare RED SORGHUM to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. Both are sprawling epics about multiple generations of one family and their plethora of hardships, set against the backdrop of war and civil instability, each possessing a blinding power that takes seed in your blood. But those are superficial parallels, and the comparison obscures Mo’s intent and affect.
Rather than magical realism, Mo Yan’s style is more of a transcendentalistic realism. He does not treat the fantastical as a naturalistic fait accompli. In fact there is nothing fantastical in the story. The episodes and passages that come closest to fantasy are cast in that light from Mo’s idiosyncratic emphasis. Plants are described as having animalistic qualities, and animals are granted the emotional and intellectual agency of human beings. Like Emerson and Thoreau Mo ascribes absolute goodness to the natural world and sees no distinction between it and its human inhabitants. Synonymy with environment is most apparent in the Narrator. RED SORGHUM is a story about the Narrator’s parents and grandparents, but the Narrator assumes a third-person omniscient point-of-view that would be physically impossible. He knows all about Grandma’s pain, Father’s anger, the soft warm mud on the floor of the Black Water River. He laments for a world he never knew, could never have known, but that’s beside the point. He feels it all like a good Transcendentalist.
The titular sorghum is not only the totem through which the Narrator experiences the long-past events. It is the most nuanced character in the book. It can cut someone like sharpened steel or envelope them a soft mattress. It will bend lazily in the wind or stand firm against rampaging aggression. It has to. Sorghum is the basis of Northeast Gaomi Township’s economy and the foundation on which its entire society is erected. Like ancient Egypt on the banks of the Nile, Northeast Gaomi Tonwship wakes and sleeps with the sorghum. It must remain patient and resolute when the sorghum is green and growing, but it can reap its harvest and enjoy its just rewards when the sorghum ripens to a life-sustaining “blood-red.”
But any Transcendentalist will tell you that the individual and the natural world will become poisoned by the corrupting influence of external societal forces, and that’s exactly what happens to Northeast Gaomi Township. The Japanese invade mainland China, and as they push into Gaomi, they use the sorghum for cover, forcing our protagonists to do the same. Soon much of the sorghum is crushed beneath the hooves of the Japanese cavalry, and what isn’t is chopped up by mutual gunfire, set aflame by dueling grenades. Everything follows the course of the sorghum. Our protagonists turn frightened, more implacable, so hungry for revenge that they become what they despise. And the toxin of corruption spreads everywhere. In one of the book’s standout sequences an “army” of wild dogs, lead by Grandma and Granddad’s three runaways, lay siege to the town, exhibiting human-like tactical know-how and falling prey to internecine power struggles. Even the language we are reading is changed. The color red is no longer the color of the blood that feeds us. It’s the color of the blood that has been spilt.
Transcendentalism has as many flaws as any other philosophy, and those become unavoidable with that reading of the book. But Mo Yan’s skill and command of craft is so apparent, I can’t believe that he is not intentionally revealing the discrepancy to us. RED SORGHUM’s scope is sprawling, but its focus rests squarely on the human heart. And it’s our hearts that can move us to realize godlike accomplishments or commit demonic crimes. From his first appearance to his last Commander Yu is a mass of scar tissue. His inability to reconcile himself to his old wounds leads him to inflict new ones on himself and others. By the time the Japanese invade, the family is already set on a circuit that can only lead to the book’s conclusion.
RED SORGHUM’s ending is one of those perfect endings that can only work in a book. Only literature allows for the headspace necessary for emotion and intellect to clash and encircle each other until an indescribable satisfaction suffuses the reader. There is no reason the last chapter should work as well as it does, but it does. As the Narrator visits the present Northeast Gaomi Township and seethes at the hybrid sorghum that now grows there, we know how irrational he is. How ridiculously everyone has behaved for the past three generations. And yet like the Narrator we can’t help but feel that something has been lost.
Maybe it’s simply that there is no more RED SORGHUM to read.