Thursday, May 18, 1995

The Garlic Ballads, by Mo Yan

A review of The Garlic Ballads, by Mo Yan
Published May 18th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

By Mo Yan
Viking Books, $23.95

Mo Yan, author of the acclaimed Red Sorghum, has written a fearless new novel about the Chinese peasantry and its precarious relationship with the Communist government. In the vein of Isabel Allende and Milan Kundera, Mo combines the political with the personal to create a devastating vision of modern China.

The Garlic Ballads follows the tragi-comic consequences of the erroneously named Paradise Country’s oversaturation of its garlic market. Government officials have told farmers that their warehouses will buy and store all the garlic that the country can produce. This creates a massive glut, and the officials are free to lower prices and squash any competing buyers.

Mo’s portrayal of the peasants is intimate and convincing. He never simply uses them to convey his message; rather, he tells their story. The government punishes them for rebelling against the injustices, bringing them to the lowest possible level of survival, but their degradation only illuminates the intensity and complexity of their lives.

This is not a hopeful novel, but it is a necessary one. The exploration of the tension between the peasants’ humanity and utility is important both on a historical and a personal level. The Garlic Ballads succeeds in finding a nearly perfect artistic reconciliation of politics and aesthetics.

—David Wiley

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