I’ve mentioned before that from a reviewing perspective, anthologies and collections are somewhat difficult. This time round however, the task is slightly less daunting, as at least all of the stories in Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh are written by the same author, last year’s Nobel Prize Laureate, Mo Yan.
Maybe the best place for me to start with Mo Yan’s writing wasn’t a collection of short stories, unless an author specialises in the medium, it’s rarely the best example of their work. Perhaps, if I’d read, for example, Red Sorghum, rather than Shifu, I’d have come away from the work with a better view of his writing. That’s not to say I didn’t like the stories, or didn’t appreciate that they were well written (and translated, which is half the battle), it’s just that after most of them, I found myself at a loss as to what the point of them was. Not that all stories have to have an overarching message or justification for their existence (Lost in Translation famously gets accused of this a lot, but it’s one of my favourite films), it’s just that in this instance I felt that Mo Yan had a point in mind for the stories, and I just missed it.
This may be a culture clash, such as in the story Man and Beast, in which a narrator recounts the story of his grandfather living for years in the Japanese mountains, unaware of the end of the Second World War, and finds himself at war with a family of foxes before ultimately encountering an innocent Japanese woman. I’m got the feeling that if I knew more about Chinese mythology and politics, I’d have appreciated the story a lot more than as a rather absurdist take on the difference between humans and animals. Others, I’m not so sure for the reason for my confusion. For example, the story Iron Child, about an orphan who runs away to live on a scrap heap, surviving only on metal until his flesh is transformed into iron and the villagers hunt him down. Unless the point of the story is actually ‘You are what you eat’, I’m sure I’ve missed something.
There were however, some stories I did like. Most notably, Love Story, a rather sweet (you guessed it!) love story between a teenage agricultural worker and an older woman who has fallen foul of the communist regime and her neighbours, who take no encouragement to subject her to lewd insinuations and comments at every opportunity. The interaction between the boy and the woman is heart-warming in its clumsiness and one definitely my favourite from the volume. The other story that stood out for me, is a harsh study of both China’s one child policy and the cultural desire for big families, as well as the effects that this dissonance has on family life.
While interesting its own right, what really struck me about this story was that it really didn’t mesh with the assessment of Mo Yan by Ai Weiwei as having “no involvement with the contemporary struggle”. The critical take on one of the defining policies of the People Republic hardly seems to indicate a lack of involvement. Of course, the story was written in the 1980s, so I suppose that would preclude it from the contemporary aspect of Ai Weiwei’s point, and as policies go, I suppose this hardly ranks with some of the Human Rights abuses the government may or may not be guilty of. I’m unlikely to get to the bottom of this here, but it is something worth thinking about, and if anyone has any light to shed on the matter, I’d definitely be interested in hearing it!.