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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 203-204
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Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001. 189 pages, cloth $23.95.
Chinese writer Mo Yan has been heaped with praise by authors of international stature—Kenzaburo Oe has suggested that he deserves a Nobel Prize—but Mo Yan warns readers in the preface to his first short-story collection, Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, that anyone hoping for intellectual sophistication should seek elsewhere. His muses, he writes, are simple: the intense hunger and loneliness of childhood in the aftermath of China's disastrous Great Leap Forward.
Mo Yan's charitable but precise word for those years of famine is "bizarre." The same grave yet lighthearted adjective could be applied to these eight stories, selected from the more than eighty he has published over the last two decades. In his narratives, the impossible and the merely unbelievable blend together in as robust and necessary an incarnation of magical realism as you are likely to find. This is magic with consequences and limitations, real life with fantastical alternatives that often end by making things worse.
In "Soaring," a woman literally flies away from an arranged marriage. She is still human enough that she can go neither high nor far, but the villagers shoot her down like the bird or demon they believe her to be. In "Iron Child," two boys wait for their parents to return from forced labor on a railway line that will be used only once. In the course of waiting, they metamorphose into iron-eating demons. Nothing strictly impossible happens in "The Cure," but the story's sense of reality is equallytopsy-turvy. Told that only a human gall bladder will cure his mother's cataracts, a dutiful son takes advantage of the madness of the Cultural Revolution—when executions have become so commonplace that the only way to draw a crowd is to make attendance mandatory—to save his mother's sight.
Masterfully translated by Howard Goldblatt, these stories are shrewd, ironic, unfailingly compassionate renderings of all the beliefs one must entertain and all the things one must forget in order to survive. In the title story, the strongest piece in this diverse collection, Ding Shifu, an industrious "grade-seven worker," is laid off just weeks away from retirement. Appalled but inspired by the introduction of pay toilets in his town ("Whoever heard of having to pay to use a toilet?"), he turns an abandoned bus into a money-making love shack for courting couples, furbished with condoms and cold drinks. All goes well until the last customers of [End Page 203] the season appear: they may or may not have carried out a suicide pact inside the bus. Ding Shifu can't bring himself to look. This Schroedinger's Cat of short stories renders its own paradox of indeterminacy: if the lovers are dead, how will he dispose of the bodies without getting into trouble with the local government? And if they are ghosts, come to express their disapproval that anyone should have to pay for love—what then? This bureaucratic farce is also a fable filled with supernatural dread.
In fact, most of these stories read as fables or folktales. Mo Yan complements his deceptively complex plots with a straightforward style and outcomes that are inescapably moral in tone (only one story, "Abandoned Child," becomes didactic). In his preface, the author claims that he is not a member of the literati and issues a challenge to critics who dismiss his work: "Let's see them write a story that captures a reader's imagination." Mo Yan has given us eight such stories in this compelling collection.
Lavonne Leong received her doctorate in English literature from Oxford University in 2002. She is a writer and editor living in Honolulu.