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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Mightier Than the Sword

A leading Chinese writer pushes the limits

By Anne Naham / Beijing


MO YAN BECAME FAMOUS with his second book Red Sorghum, which also propelled actress Gong Li to international stardom after it was made into a film by Zhang Yimou. His latest novel, Full Breasts and Fat Asses, is the story of an odd family of well-endowed women and their socially inept and sexually impotent men and equally strange relatives. The book portrays Communist Party stalwarts, Kuomintang supporters and bandits in morally neutral terms. Even without the sex, this would have put him on a collision course with conservatives in Beijing.

As in previous works, such as The Garlic Ballads (see review below), Mo Yan draws on his experiences growing up in rural China. He was born in 1955 in Guan Moye (his pen name means "not willing to talk") in a village of northeastern Shandong province called Gao Mi, the setting for his novels. His family was poor, hardly making enough off the land to feed a family of four children. "I already felt hungry when I was born, and after that, it didn't get any better," he says. In those days one way out of poverty was to join the army. But he was the grandson of someone belonging to the politically suspect middle peasant class.

"Every year an army recruiting team came to our village to select the strongest boys, and every year I was refused," he says. "I begged and pleaded and tried to become friends with influential people." Finally, in 1976 he was accepted. It was in the army that he was educated, first as a librarian, and later at the Army Arts and Literature College. He is still a staff officer in the People's Liberation Army, working in the political bureau. It is a fact often omitted on the inside jackets of his books published in the West.

In 1981 he published his first novel Falling Rain on a Spring Night, a story about a soldier's wife who misses her husband. Last year he won the first Literary Great Writer's Award, and its prize of about $12,000. Full Breasts, he says, is his last book about Gao Mi. In a wide-ranging interview, Mo Yan discussed the work and his troubles with the authorities. Excerpts:

Why are you so harshly criticized?

As a writer, I thought I could describe life through the eyes of ordinary people. At the time of the Civil War people were only interested in survival. So many families had sons and daughters who either fought for the Communists or for the Kuomintang. Often it was a matter of which army recruited first. The choice was not between good or bad, it was between having food or going without it. My critics know who won the war, and according to them, I do not have the right perspective on history.

Perhaps the sexually explicit scenes in your new book triggered the criticism.

That's part of it, but my biggest problem is my so-called incorrect view of history. They only use the sex scenes in my book as an alibi to attack me politically.

Yes, but you make it rather easy for them. The title of your book is not very subtle.

My critics are clever enough to see through the title, but they act as if they can't. Of course, superficially the title has a sexual meaning. But if you think about it one second longer, you will understand it has to do with fertility. Earth, fertility, sex, you cannot divide these notions. But I also hope that the readers understand the title Full Breasts, Fat Asses is also a satirical comment about modern, superficial consumerism, which uses sex to sell products.

All of your books contain the looming notion of fate, sometimes good, mostly bad. Can we not escape fate?

We tried to in the Great Leap Forward and during the Cultural Revolution. Scientists tried to cross rabbits with sheep and failed miserably. We cannot escape fate or nature or politics. Ordinary Chinese always knew that.

Politics?

In China people go to jail because of politics. That's fate. The mother in Full Breasts knows that there is no way of fighting fate. She endures war, flood and the Cultural Revolution, but she also understands life's turns can bring good things as well as disasters. She knows that sticking to her own ways is the only thing she can do. Grass blows in the wind but is still firmly rooted in the earth, which gives it life and strength.

That's not the Marxist line.

Marxism has never really entered the minds of ordinary people. They've always thought of communism as just another storm over the grass fields.

Your harshest critics are army men rather than the central government.

Yes, but this was already damaging enough. My unit forced me to write self-criticism, but I didn't want to. Then my department started to hold meetings, and I understood I had to sit through them until I gave in. I thought: let's get it over with. I'll do my self-criticism and then we'll all go out for dinner. So I asked my colleagues to write a self-criticism for me, and I just signed my name to it.

What's in the self-criticism?

That my book doesn't have the right attitude to class struggle, that I have unhealthy ideas about sex (although I never understand what's healthy when it comes to sex). My critics demanded that my publisher withdraw the book. So I asked my publisher to do so. If I had refused, my whole department would have suffered.

But it's still in every bookstall.

Those are pirated copies. Official copies sold only 30,000 until it was taken off the market. Rogue publishers have sold at least ten times that number.

Do you plan to make a movie?

No director dares to film this story. It's too politically sensitive.

How about translations?

French and Italian publishers are interested but first it has to be translated into English. I have a contract with an American publisher, and they have first rights. n

Are you working on a new book?

No, I'll take a break. Next year I'll start a new book, I think.

Pungent and Earthy

Life is not so heavenly in Paradise county. The Communist Party has encouraged the villagers to plant garlic at the expense of other crops. The result is predictable to all but those steeped in the communist mentality. The market becomes saturated, prices fall and farmers cannot sell their produce. Rotten garlic fills the lives of these villagers -- and the air they breathe. Naturally, they protest, but are labeled troublemakers by the same people who led them into their difficulties.

Garlic symbolizes both their lost dreams and the ruthless oppression of their government. For all the apparent bleakness of its theme, however, The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan (Penguin Books, London, 290 pages, 4.99, paperback, translated by Howard Goldblatt) has a pungency one might expect from its title. Mo Yan's prose is redolent with the smells of the Chinese countryside. Despite the spread of glitzy new shopping centers in the major cities, it is in the country where 80% of China's people reside.

Readers will move through jute fields and mosquito-filled summer sunsets along with the protagonists as they bow to fate and fulfill their destinies. What emerges is an inspiring story of indomitable human nature. As he demonstrated in Red Sorghum, an epic tale of the same rural clan in Shandong during the Japanese occupation years, Mo Yan has a great ability to translate China's rural experience into gripping, earthy and sensuous tales.

-- Naomi Stunt


The Dark Side of Cyberspace

William Gibson and Philip Kerr present contrasting novels from a Web-linked world of the future

SCIENCE FICTION ONCE DEPICTED the future as gleamingly clean and logically-ordered. William Gibson, an American writer who is often called the father of "cyberpunk" literature (he coined the term "cyberspace") presents a much darker vision of a world relentlessly linked by Web sites, where computer technology is as invasive as it is helpful. As in his past novels (Neuromancer, Virtual Light) things are constantly falling apart and being put back together.

The central figure of Gibson's latest, idoru (Viking, London, 292 pages, 16, hardback) is Laney, a particularly talented data researcher who is recruited to find out why Rez, the world's most successful pop singer, wants to marry a Japanese performer, or "idoru," called Rei Toei. The problem is that she is only a holographic computer creation, a kind of virtual reality Stepford Wife.

One of Rez's fans, Chia McKenzie, is on the same quest, and the pair end up, appropriately enough in Tokyo, recently rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in a way that is characteristically both high-tech and ramshackle. The wired and weird Japanese city of the 21st century seems like the logical setting for these characters. Gibson's view of the future is entertaining in its other details too. Russia is ruled by a union of the resurrected Communist Party and the mafia, combining the most thuggist features of both.

Gibson is undoubtedly better at invention than narrative. The drawback of his novels, including idoru, is the difficulty in making sense out of a rambling, chaotic story. Sections of the book move along without much reference to each other, and the tale is barely held together with tenuous connections and peculiar coincidences. There are odd sub-plots of stolen data and villainous journalists; they are usually interesting but sometimes their relevance to the main story is hard to see.

A hologram-human rather than a real receptionist greets visitors to the newest and grandest building in Los Angeles in British writer Philip Kerr's latest techno-thriller, Gridiron (Vintage, London, 465 pages, 5.99, paperback). That is the nickname for a thoroughly "intelligent building" designed by Ray Richardson. But the computer suddenly turns into a killer, and Richardson and his staff have to fight their way out. It is men and women against the computer with the humans (non-virtual kind) barely holding on.

The book superficially resembles Michael Crichton's Rising Sun in that it takes place in an Asian-owned Los Angeles high-rise, but it does not carry a lot of extraneous editorializing about the Japanese "threat." Is it significant that these two futuristic thrillers use as their locales Tokyo and Los Angeles, the twin "capitals" of the Pacific Rim?

-- By Derek Parker


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