sometimes even a very fine work just does not translate.
if you’re planning to become a Mo Yan reader, you really must know a few things about Chinese history and culture, else it’s all going to be mystifying to you. for this book, you really should know something about Chinese opera and the Boxer Rebellion.
Mo Yan says in an afterword to this book that he wrote it with two rhythms in mind: the rhythm of trains, and the rhythm of Maoqiang opera. i suspect the original Chinese version of this book is a masterwork of styles and sound and, not to fault the translation at all, i don’t think it translates. Mo Yan wrote that the novel’s style is meant to sound like an open-air performance by a hoarse-voiced troupe of common actors. i can see easily how approaching this book with that image in mind would make it mesh in a way it does not in English, and in print.
this book does not strike me as overtly political in the way that many of Mo Yan’s books are. it’s the story of a county magistrate, his mistress, his mistress’s Boxer rebel/Maoqiang opera father, and of her father-in-law, the executioner. each is trapped in the machinations of others trying to gain power and prestige, and in the kind of sad and inevitable fate so common in Chinese opera.
i enjoyed this book, but prefer others of Mo Yan’s work. it’s hard to read this without being aware of how much one is unavoidably missing for the western reader–sound, rhythm, nuance, a deep knowledge of the history. i suspect that in Chinese, it’s a masterpiece on par with Pride and Prejudice or Moby-Dick. but alas, there are some works that simply have to be read in the original.