My mind now smells of garlic

A few days ago, rather reluctantly, I finished the final chapter of one great novel. Beyond a shadow of a doubt lingering on its luminous pages, this book, without mincing any words, is Nobel Prize material. According to Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, “If I were to choose a Nobel Laureate, it would be Mo Yan.”

The final chapters sent my spirits soaring into another country, another realm. The narrative is laced with a raw and unique blend of magic realism, vastly distinct in its handling from Kafka, Marquez, or Murakami. Each chapter begins with a short ballad sung by the blind minstrel  Zhang Kou (strictly an observer rather than a participant in the story) that is reminiscent of a Greek chorus. This simple literary device allows the drama to gently unfold, urging its spirit forward, and aptly summing up the mood of the moment. The precise and telling opening lines reflect deeper poetic sensibilities.

Poetry in narration

Layered, lifelike, and never linear, the plot moves seamlessly back and forth in time, bearing allegiance to overall significance rather than to a time-bound order of development. The plot structure unfurls architectural subtlety that is truly the work of a master. Racy,  compelling, and liberally steeped in romance and adventure from the very start to finish, the narrative is almost thriller-like in its un-put-down-ability.

What makes Mo Yan’s brand of surrealism unique is that the string of events leading up to the sad end is firmly grounded in reality. The story, played out by a handful of credible, well-rounded characters has an aura of authenticity and realism that makes it eminently believable. The bawdiness of the dialogues too — interspersed with gems of folk insight and wisdom — comes out of the mouths of common village folk. A “ring of truth” chimes throughout. A skilled story-teller is like a clever little spider spinning yarns apparently out of nowhere, to mesmerize and captivate the reader. The magical patterns shine like silver gossamer threads in the sunlight and in the moonlight.

The entire story is sprinkled with dream-like sequences. While the reader may often be transported to a magical realm, both his or her feet are always planted firmly on the ground. Towards the end of the book Gao Yang, one of the main characters,  is led away by two policemen, paraded through the town, handcuffed and in excruciating pain from his swollen, pus-filled ankle. A rooster appears from nowhere and starts to peck at Gao’s injured ankle. The dogged bird continues to peck unforgivingly, but Gao’s excruciating pain goes unnoticed by the callous policemen escorting him, until the rooster manages to pluck a long white tendon out of the open sore. It pulls the tendon a foot or so more from its source and swallows it whole like one big noodle. One of his tormentors, a fat cop, whispers into Gao’s ear, “He’s plucked the root of your problem.”

People struggle on

The Garlic Ballads sing in defense of peasants who have toiled ceaselessly under crushing government directives to grow garlic in their small fields, their only available source of livelihood.  Unable to sell their produce, and betrayed by the treachery of mindless bureaucrats, the peasants finally rise up in revolt.  Their honest labor reduced to naught, they have nowhere to go in the end.

Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Noble Prize for Literature is a supreme story-teller, who like  Scherazade in The One Thousand and One Nights, keeps the Sultan (you, in this case) whispering “What next?” from chapter to chapter. I wish someone would ask me, “What’s the best novel you’ve read in your life?” While my common sense will argue with my better judgement all night, in the pale light of dawn my heart may really have only one answer. Maybe there’s a very good reason nobody has asked me that question yet. So far, not about “my best novel,” “my best film,” or “my best song.”  So ruefully, it is here that I must rest my case.


Filed under Commentary

4 responses to “My mind now smells of garlic

  1. Any post titled “My Mind Now Smells Of Garlic” certainly gets my attention… : )

    The Garlic Ballads, eh? I’d never heard of it, and you make it sound extremely compelling. One thing’s for sure: from now on, I’m not going anywhere without rooster guards on my ankles!!

    Do you write book reviews? Perhaps it’s something you should consider. : )

  2. Awfully sorry Mark, for the delay in replying. Numerous personal problems kept me away from the blog in the past month or so, but I do appreciate your comments very much. The Garlic Ballads is the first book I read by this author. I’ve just started reading Red Shorghum, and hope it’ll be as good. Mo Yan is a celebrated writer in China. About reviewing books, I am quite choosy about what I read, so the thought of having to read everything that’s thrown at you seems scary. Besides, book critics need to be sufficiently well read, and well-equipped with the nuances of critical appreciation, which obviously I am not. Thanks anyway for your comments, and as always, do keep up the good work you’re doing!

  3. Nandini Ghosh Dastidar

    Nandini Dastidar
    July 18th,2013

    After going through this review, I think I have no option but to get my hands on this book,the sooner the better.
    Can you please write a review on Murakami’s’ Kafka on the Shore’? I would like to know your take on it.

    • Thanks for the input. again, I personally liked the book no end, but not everyone will share my enthusiasm. That’s understable. I haven’t read Murakami’s “Kafka on the shore,” but now that you mention it, I guess I’ll have to.

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