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Novelist Mo Yan Takes Aim with 41 Bombs
Although Guan Moye has adopted the nom de plume Mo Yan -meaning "don't speak" in Chinese, it seems an endless cascade of words has been emerging from his pen or computer.

Whatever the subject matter is, a torrential flow of rich, unpredictable and often lacerating words remains his trademark.

While this claim to silence amid an outpouring of fiction may signify a contradictory combination of self-mockery and self-praise, that is precisely why so many literary critics have voiced their support of him, whether from the perspective of feminism or something else.

He has had nine novels and over 70 short stories published in the past 22 years. Few other Chinese writers come close to emulating his stories in terms of popularity.

Mo's writing has gained him a considerable audience - not only in China but overseas, where he is considered one of the most talented and interesting Chinese writers.

At least six of his novels have been translated into English, German or French. The translators are themselves writers or scholars who are very interested in Chinese literature.

Fresh approach

Last week, the 47-year-old writer, who is best-known for his 1987 novel "Hong Gaoliang Jiazu (Red Sorghum)," announced that his new novel would be released in early July.

The movie adaptation of "Red Sorghum" became one of the most popular Chinese films and won international acclaim.

The 350,000-character new book recounts the childhood of a butcher's son in a village slaughterhouse on the outskirts of a Chinese city.

The story expresses the current concerns of many Chinese people: unemployment, the gap between urban and rural areas, and changes in moral values when people start earning more money.

Beyond the descriptions of mundane life, the satirical tone and fantastic occurrences, and the imaginative narrative framework, Mo has filled his novel with puns, a variety of prose styles, allusions - classic and modern, political and literary, elegant and scatological - and much local flavor.

"In the new novel, I try to use the inertial force of narration to let the story flow forward without a hitch," said Mo.

"I try to ensure that the plots go down effortlessly just like flowing water in a river with an eddy somewhere, carrying along mud and sand and maybe other things from both sides of the river.

"Such a story is an inevitable outcome of description, imitating an elegant tone of speech and even beyond the capability of the boy - the novel's protagonist," Mo added.

The new novel underlines, however, Mo's groping towards a very different style of fiction from the historical theme with which he made his name and his own fortune.

For instance, his debut novel "Red Sorghum" is a historical romance set during the Chinese War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-45) with bold and unrestrained erotic imagery. Mo said the novel propelled his writing into a new creative vista.

His later work "Tanxiang Xing (The Sandalwood Torture)" tells of the horrifying and savage torture and a soul-stirring love story during the Boxer or Yihetuan rebellion - an anti-imperialist armed struggle waged by North China's farmers and handicraftsmen in 1900.

Since then, Mo has wanted to write about contemporary life. Clearly anxious to be more than a mere storyteller, Mo has been grappling with how he can infuse satire into the plot to successfully realize that new recipe.

"For a creative writer, books... are not the most crucial thing. The most crucial things are inspiration, the imagination, and life experience," Mo said.

What he has done is to expand a subplot of his earlier novel "The Republic of Wine" into a new lengthy work.

One part of "The Republic of Wine" shows how Chinese farmers are changing their traditional lifestyle and values and how they are still obsessed with the essential ingredients of life such as food and sex as their hometown becomes submerged into the city.

Mo admitted that there are three major features in his works: extraordinary characters; language with absurd local flavor (or somewhat black humor of the absurd); and plots with symbolic meaning.

In Chinese tradition, wine is closely connected to meat. Both of them are used metaphorically to describe sexuality and the life of a libertine.

There are related idioms, such as "lakes of wine and forests of meat" (referring to a life of extravagance and dissipation) and the term "wine-and-meat friends," who invite each other to feasts and to take part in sensual pleasure.

That is why Mo selected meat as major symbol when writing his new story.

Mo's fruit and roots

Among the wheat and sorghum fields of his boyhood home, Mo creates unsentimental portrayals of grinding poverty, where sexual and emotional repression goes hand in hand with modern humor and fantastical flights of imagination in the fictionalized world.

His often dark vision is transformed by his deep love for his land and people, his mastery of language and the sheer intensity and exuberance of his writings.

Deprived backgrounds seem to exert a greater gravitational pull on an author's imagination than those spent in luxury.

Mo's background provides enough material as it is. Most of his novels are filled with references to his humble past growing up in a farmer's family in Gaomi, a poor county in East China's Shandong Province.

Born on March 5, 1956, Mo was forced to abandon primary school during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and do farming.

Upon coming of age, he became a worker in a county town. At the age of 20, Mo joined the People's Liberation Army and gradually displayed his talent for writing.

In 1981, "Chunye Yu Feifei (Rain Falling Thick and Fast in the Spring Night)" became his first published short story. Two years later, he published another piece, "Minjian Yinyue (Folk Music)," which became very popular.

He entered the literature department of the People's Liberation Army Art Academy in 1984 and published "Toumingde Hongluobo (A Transparent Radish)," which reveals a unique style.

His "Red Sorghum" was chosen by readers as the best-loved novella in a poll conducted by the Beijing-based periodical People's Literature in 1986.

Mo described a childhood steeped in rich experience but also in suffering.

"Hunger and loneliness are themes I've repeatedly explored in my novels, and I consider them the source of my riches," he said. "You have to taste bitterness. Then you will be able to write."

The folktales told to him as a child by his grandfather have since been fodder for many of his works. Mo's way of talking is a series of adages about writing interspersed with some about folklore.

All the while, however, his greatest source of creative inspiration is his hometown of Gaomi and the people who live there.

"When I write of villages in China, including those in my hometown Gaomi, I am careful to keep in mind that this place is the origin of my creative thought and fertile imagination," Mo said.

Mo's vexation

Despite his literary achievements, Mo has other concerns. Like several other well-known Chinese writers, Mo worries his new novel will be a target of copyright pirates.

"It is nearly impossible for publishing houses and me to defend ourselves effectively against such pirated books on the market," Mo said.

Last month, a court ruled in his favour in a dispute concerning a Beijing supermarket that was selling books supposedly written by Mo.

When the novelist and his publisher - a literature publishing house in Northeast China's Liaoning Province - signed an agreement last year on publishing Mo's new novel, they included an item on keeping the new book's name a secret until its publication to prevent the book from being pirated.

Some 150,000 copies of the book should have been released in May and sold in large bookshops nationwide but publication was postponed due to the spread of SARS.

Mo entitled his new novel "Sishiyi Pao (Forty-one Bombs)."

In his hometown, a talkative or boastful boy is usually called a pao haizi, or "bombing child."

(China Daily June 27, 2003)

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