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Mo Yan: “Bull”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Mo Yan’s “Bull” (tr. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt) was originally published in the November 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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This week’s story is an excerpt from Pow!, the forthcoming books from this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mo Yan. I have not read anything by Mo Yan, but over the past month I’ve read a lot about him and am anxious to see what this excerpt holds. I’ll post my thoughts here when I’m finished reading “Bull,” but in the meantime feel free to leave your comments below.

8 thoughts on “Mo Yan: “Bull””

  1. Aaron says:

    I’m glad you told me this was an excerpt: it allowed me to hold back some of my nastier thoughts against this slight piece. All of the events are so sudden and, at least to me, inexplicable — I get what they’re meant to imply and illustrate, but not why they’re so contrived nor why they seem so artlessly introduced. There are plenty of stories in which a child has great respect he has for his father, finds himself losing that faith after the father shows his fallibility, and then ends up coming around after a moment of redemption; I’d have expected one in which the child himself is narrating to pack more of a punch. Instead, there seem to be only callow observations, unconnected theories, and interesting details that really have nothing to do with the central (and sudden) conflict of the piece. And while I understand that “callow” might be intentional given the age of the narrator, I’d argue that only signals the narrative choices to be incorrect. WHAT is the story meant to be about, resolving as it does in the middle of a conversation?

    More, though not angrier, thoughts here: http://bit.ly/XBNZCv

  2. Betsy says:

    “Bull”, by Mo Yan, is an excerpt from a novel set in a rural Chinese village where the “blood money” of commerce rules. Blood is almost a character in this story; early on, the narrator tells us that as a child he could smell the butcher coming, because “blood…doesn’t wash off.” The story revolves around bloody commerce – – the slaughterhouse, the violence of its markets, the willingness of the merchant to cheat his customer or poison him, the mysterious ways of the salesman, and the way a whole society can itself become, in the wake of commerce, a slaughterhouse. This is no tale of the ‘man in the gray flannel suit’. By chapter’s end, the hero is covered and clothed in bull’s blood.

    Excerpts are, by their nature, frustrating. While one reads a story for its completeness, one reads an excerpt wondering at every paragraph what will be complete in this piece, and what has to be found in the novel for its completion. But without this excerpt, I would have not had a taste of Mo Yan, and so accept the difficulties of the excerpt.

    For one thing, here is the possibility of seeing Chinese society as the Chinese see it, rather than as the NPR version. “Bull” is set in a village where animals play a primary role – a bull, two pigs, and a “Wild Mule.” One is reminded of Orwell, whose “Animal Farm” rejects communism, and so some kind of critique of Chinese communist society seems implicit, even though Mo Yan is an author of whom the Chinese are very proud. He appears to play the role of the trickster, having taken a pen name which means “Do Not Speak”, and whose one time public performance of Mao’s advice to writers may be more than it at first appeared to be.

    Mo Yan makes a point of ears in this piece: a child envisions the pleasure of eating a fried pig’s ear, complete with condiments, and in the end, one character teaches another a lesson by biting off a piece of his rival’s ear, as if to say, “Listen to me!” So one wonders how much Mo Yan himself is finding various shocking selves in which to clothe himself, in which to shout, “Listen to me!”

    One of the charms of this excerpt is its hero, Luo Tong, an Odyssean man who is a bit of a rolling stone and who “lives by his wits”. While given to self-indulgence and laziness, he is able to depend upon a living as a cattle appraiser. He’s known to his neighbors as a man whose judgments in this area are infallible, and who prompts people to say to him, “You be the judge!” Even more, he’s known as a man who is “incorruptible” because he takes bribes from no one. The neighbors say, “If all Chinese were like you, communism would have been realized decades ago.”

    Instead, this society where Luo Tong lives is a kind of wild west, where men make their own laws, where shenanigans rule, where salesmen slide into town in the dead of night towing some cattle and don’t slide out until they’ve spent it all. In this wild west spirit, Luo Tong himself has abandoned his family for the comforts of the “Wild Mule”, a woman in town.

    The central action of this chapter is a stand-off, a battle of wits between Luo Tong and his corrupt rival. The scene is a kind of gun-fight at the O.K. Corral, Chinese style. Involving as it does the issue of “face”, this scene is filled with wonderful poses, but it ends with some knock-down, spiked-up action, where Luo Tong, as mentioned before, ends up drenched in the blood of a bull.

    The novel calls. What will these guys get up to next? Just who is “Wild Mule” and why is she wild and why is she a mule? And, most of all, what will the “incorruptible” Luo Tong (the judge) see next that is worth his time and trouble? And, for the reader, perhaps there will be insight into what the Chinese really think of what’s going on in China today.

    A secondary quandary arises from reading this story, beside the issue of excerpts — that being the many questions raised about the fact that this is a work in translation. I could happily read a whole essay by Howard Goldblatt on the topic of the difficulties he encountered translating this piece. For instance, what got lost? Given that the Chinese language is full of associations, cognates, allusions and double meanings, what proved untranslatable? And if that is the case, shouldn’t there be footnotes to the story to provide the English speaking reader with some of the richness the Chinese reader would encounter? In addition, there is the question of the vast history of literature that any writer uses, if worth their salt, and in this case, how Chinese literature in particular plays into the story telling.

    And then, there are my specific questions. Is there something to know about why Mo Yan named a character “Wild Mule”? (Does it have some particular meaning to the Chinese reader that it doesn’t have to us?) When Luo Tong gets bathed in the blood of the bull, he turns “red”. (What associations does this bear for the Chinese reader? Does he or she make any association, as we do, with “Red” China? Or are there other historical associations with the color red, in whose blood Luo Tong has been baptized?) And how about that title? Does “Bull” carry any connotations of ‘bull market” in contemporary Chinese usage, or “Bull!” in the way we use it, to express outright disbelief? I’m not sure any of this is readily available to the casual reader, and so wonder why the New Yorker doesn’t, as a matter of course, pursue at least some of these question when publishing a work in translation.

    Another question from me for the translator is whether or not any of Mo Yan’s sentences have made it into Chinese every day usage. From this story, “Castration changes a man” or “Blood doesn’t wash off” both come to mind.

    Despite the challenges of reading a work in translation, however, this Odyssean character and his prolific butenigmatic author interest me. I hope to take a look at the novel in due time.

  3. Trevor says:

    Betsy, welcome back! I know from emails and other comments that many have missed you while you were away working on an extended project, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s excited to see your comment here. I only skimmed it for now since I haven’t read the story yet.

  4. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Trevor. It’s nice to be back.

  5. Ken says:

    I enter late, but also welcome back Betsy. Her comments are invaluable. I actually quite liked this story. Part of it is context: after two stories about grieving middle class white Americans (Antonya Nelson’s which I liked and Mailie Meloy’s which I was lukewarm about) it was nice to read about people who have to worry about feeding themselves not mourning a personal, familial matter. As a glimpse into China this was fascinating. As a folktale it was completely entertaining and exciting. Not a subtle exploration of themes but an up-front, almost blunt statement about some socio-economic realiites of present day China within a fairly artless (I assume) style. Granted, it’s an excerpt and so a bit unsatsifying but it definitely made me want to read the rest of the book.

  6. Betsy says:

    Thanks for the welcome, Ken and Michael, and also from Just Recompense.

    I want to note that there are two excellent essays in December by Perry Link in the New York Review of Books regarding Mo Yan. In one, he doubts that Yan’s work is satire, and he poses that his writing is the more shallow “daft hilarity” that merely entertains. Given the tragedies in the periods Mo Yan treats, this would be indefensible. In a second essay, he acknowledges a retort to him by Charles Laughlin, which defends Mo Yan’s work as satire.

    Link himself flatly states Mo Yan should not have won the Nobel; he poses 9 other writers as far and away more worthy. I note Ha Jin, whose writing I admire, and I note Zheng Yi, who sounds interesting.

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