Four Classic Texts – Part Two.
2022 Reading Challenge. AKA Hank Schwaeble made me do this.
Earlier this year, Hank Schwaeble, author of some of my all-time favourite horror thriller novels and short stories (Damnable, Diabolical, and American Nocturne, and more recently Moonless Nocturne), challenged his friends and colleagues to enrich themselves by reading four classic texts—outside our usual genres—over the next twelve months. I hesitated. Quite apart from the ‘future classics’ I read in order to blurb for author friends (around 30 annually), I’m also a manuscript assessor, literary judge, anthology curator, and guest editor for multiple projects, all of which amounts to a lot of reading. Plus, I like to keep up with my favourite writers (many) and works that appear on award lists as much as I can, as well as staying current in genres that I’m writing in, which, admittedly, is a lot. And there are my favourite classic texts, like Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Hugo's Germinal , books which I try to read regularly and am always surprised when they still resonate, albeit sometimes for different reasons. I imagine that is the very definition of a classic text—that they stand the test of time and speak to universal themes which have meaning for people across cultures and also across generations. But I do have a lot of reading to get through this year. Could I afford to take on four more books? And in genres I’m less excited about? I persuaded myself that there was no harm in checking out the list that Hank provided. After all, I’m as well-read as the next person, so there was a good chance I’d already read most of them...
Whoops. Not so.
Many of the titles were new to me—including some secondary works by authors of acclaim. So, partly because I was bitterly ashamed at having read so few on the list, and partly because I love to read, I selected four:
· Blindness by José Saramago
· The Bostonians by Henry James
· Waiting for Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
· Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
I began by reading Blindness by José Saramago, and if you missed my review of that title, you can find it HERE. Next up, I selected Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan (translated by Howard Goldblatt), out of order (because I felt like it) and also because I was deep into contributor proofs for my upcoming collection Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror (with Angela Yuriko Smith) and somehow it felt appropriate for me, personally, to immerse myself in a story from the old country, at a time when my own grandparents were living there, not long before they fled to New Zealand. The back cover copy reads:
Spanning three generations, this novel of family and myth is told through a series of flashbacks that depict events of staggering horror set against a landscape of gemlike beauty as the Chinese battle both the Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s.
As the novel opens, a group of villagers, led by Commander Yu, the narrator's grandfather, prepare to attack the advancing Japanese. Yu sends his 14-year-old son back home to get food for his men; but as Yu's wife returns through the sorghum fields with the food, the Japanese start firing and she is killed.
Her death becomes the thread that links the past to the present and the narrator moves back and forth recording the war's progress, the fighting between the Chinese warlords and his family's history.
Cover: The cover of the kindle version, seen above with its traditional image of a peasant silhouetted against a farming scene in red hues, appealed to me. My grandfather's family were farmers, and later he went on to become a general himself, reporting to Chiang Kai-shek, so this story felt like it might speak to me personally. My Gong Going (as I called him) lived half a country away and died just as I was beginning to speak, so all I know of him is second-hand. The missing insight into his role in my family history, coupled with blurb terms like 'myth' and 'staggering horror' helped to pull me into this book. The choice of colour on the cover is inspired, symbolic of good fortune for Chinese people but also hinting at vast fields of red sorghum running with blood, the setting for the story's plotline.
Story: It's an intergenerational story of survival, of family and friends fighting to retain their culture and their humanity even while enduring dreadful hardship. It is a tale of battles and skirmishes and disagreements, with the characters pitted against the invaders, neighbouring families, family members, bandits, even against the marauding packs of dogs who devour the bodies of the dead,, and all conducted between the undulating rows of sorghum. The narrator is the grandson of a headstrong General Yu Zhan-ao and his independent wife (who shines in this story for her tenacity). As the narrator relates the tale of his ancestors, including his father's boyhood role, the story jumps back and forth through decades, occasionally with flashbacks inside flashbacks. And while I imagine some readers found this confusing, the cascading perspectives felt familiar to me, a third-generation Chinese-New Zealander, as if several people were sitting around a table reliving an event and all interrupting to argue their own viewpoint. In my experience, this is how Chinese families function, although, to be fair, the grandchildren are never really 'told' anything. In truth, there are more secrets than stories. The writing (in translation) is beautiful and bleak, and the horror, as I said earlier, is unspeakable. Red Sorghum doesn't pull any punches. Although fictional, it reads like a memoir and there is nowhere to hide from the reality. Many times, I was forced to put the book down and take a breather.
Regarding the history, the story telescopes down to just the fields and the neighbourhood and the region, with the characters never quite seeing the full picture of what is going nationally, or even globally, in keeping with the lack of news coverage in isolated villages during that time. Reading more widely about the author, I discovered that when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan was criticized as a communist puppet by certain literary commentators. This might be the case, nevertheless, Mo Yan applies the show-not-tell rule in Red Sorghum, his characters revealing their own motivations for their actions, or inaction, as the story unfolds haphazardly, and in the face of overwhelming hardship. Politics aside, it is the authenticity of the characters' responses, and the way they embrace or reject cultural expectations and familial duty that are perhaps the most telling aspects of this harrowing narrative.
Is it compelling historical fiction? Yes.
Was it an easy read? Not always. The horror in this story isn't cloaked in fantasy. This is gritty and confronting writing, and, at times, achingly beautiful in its sparsity.
Did it offer thematic insights I hadn’t already gleaned from other texts? No, but there are aspects of this book that highlighted things I have understood from a cultural perspective, and reading them here, they almost broke me. The scenes in the well...
Would I read it a second time? Possibly not.
Would I read something else by Mo Yan? My first instinct was to say no because, if I'm honest, I was more intrigued by the grandmother than the men who drove the plot. Then I saw that Mo Yan has also written a novel called Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and quite apart from the provocative title, the blurb for that tale immediately drew me in. It reads:
In a country where patriarchal favoritism and the primacy of sons survived multiple revolutions and an ideological earthquake, this epic novel is first and foremost about women, with the female body serving as the book’s central metaphor. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900 and married at seventeen into the Shangguan family. She has nine children, only one of whom is a boy—the narrator of the book. A spoiled and ineffectual child, he stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings.
Aha! My own grandmother was born barely a generation later, but she also had nine children, including seven forceful girls. I picked up a copy...
Sensitivity. Definitely some triggering elements for certain readers.
Do I feel enriched? Yes. I'm inspired to read so much more about this era, and from other perspectives. Last week I finished reading Min Jin Lee's New York Times bestselling book Pachinko, the life story of a disgraced Korean teen, who lives out her life with her family in Japan throughout the second Sino-Japanese war, a heart-wrenching story of generational oppression and poverty.
For the next classic book on my 2022 Reading Challenge, please check back around early October.