Mo Yan's newest novel, called Frog, is ill-served by its publicity billing: "A novel about the One Child Policy and population control!"
Unappealing as that sounds, Mo Yan is too accomplished a writer to simply dress up an historical tract as a novel, and Frog is in many ways a good read. The first thing I noticed was that he had abandoned the baroquely florid storytelling style of Life and Death are Wearing Me Out for a more traditional Chinese narrative, a descendent of the "gather 'round and I'll tell you a story" style more often associated with Su Tong. In this case, the book is narrated by a Communist Party member whose aunt – once known in their rural county as a miracle midwife – is one of the first implementers of the new planned-reproduction policies of the late 70s and early 80s.
The aunt is the heart of the story – her determination to carry out what she sees as a vital new policy, her demonization by rural families hell-bent on raising sons, her eventual reconsideration and regret. Mo Yan is still a master of the scene, of the dramatic moment, and there are many throughout the book: starving children discovering, with shuddering wonder, that coal is good to eat; the death of a pregnant woman who has plunged into a turbulent river rather than let the planned-reproduction team drag her back for a forced abortion; the same team demolishing the houses of neighbors of an anti-abortion holdout, in order to turn the whole community against the law-breakers.
I was quite enjoying Frog, but then I made the mistake of putting it down about halfway through, and going to read something I'd meant to read for years: The Crystal Carrot (透明的红萝卜), one of Mo Yan's earlier novellas. Published in the early 1980s, the story helped launch Mo Yan's domestic reputation and still headlines the table of contents of any anthology of his works.
Now, Carrot is a canonical example of what some around here have mocked as the "Faux-Faulkner School of the Holy Fool" – leaning on the essentialism of uneducated rural characters for that "genuine" feel – but it's also a great story. The sacred fire that animates Carrot, which I don't see in Frog, is that sense that the story has somehow outstripped its author. The ten-year-old Blackie of Carrot is something of a cipher to the other characters in the story, in whom he provokes conflicting desires to protect and punish, just as he is a cipher to the reader. But he is also a cipher to the author, and seems to possess an agency that is outside Mo Yan's control. The characters of Frog are well-imagined and well-drawn, but don't glow with the same eerie life – they are too much under the control of their creator.
The final part of the book takes the form of a play in nine scenes, written by the narrator, in which he tries to account somehow for his aunt's behavior and for the conflicting feelings of guilt and duty, loyalty to family and Party, which tore her apart later in life. Perhaps the dramatic format is meant to illustrate the subjectivity and surmise that always characterize one person's attempt to picture the inner life of another, but its unfortunate side-effect is to pry the conclusion of the story away from reality and into fantasy. A narrative that might have continued tracking the changing social consequences of planned reproduction right up until the present day instead stops with its effects on the traditional value system of rural China – not a subject close to the heart of anyone likely to read this book – and then sighs away into melodrama.
I guess what I'm saying is that I expected this book to address a sensitive subject with some bravery, but in the end my impression was one of conservatism. From front to back, Frog bears the marks of careful consideration: this is a book that knows where all the lines are drawn, and steps around them skilfully. If you wanted to be cynical about it, you could read the "Ten years in the making!" blurb from Frog's inside cover as, "We waited ten years for this subject matter to become less sensitive!"; the past couple of years have brought substantial public rethinking and partial public repudiation of the One Child Policy, the curse has come off the topic to a certain extent, and now was the right time to publish. Contrast that with Su Tong's Boat to Redemption, which has drawn real opprobrium for its ugly portrait of Communist mythology.
The joy of creating potent scenes and imagery – a joy that once approached glee in Carrot – is still present in Frog in a tempered and mature form. But the joy of creating a story that lives and breathes within a world of its own is gone. Mo Yan chose this subject presumably because he felt it was important or necessary; it was another kind of necessity that led him to curtail the scope of the narrative. All these well-gauged considerations make for an ultimately tiring reading experience – may we recommend a Carrot instead?