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The 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Mo Yan, a Chinese author whose works have often been compared to magical realists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass. The novel “The Garlic Ballads“ has been described as the best book of his to start with. One of his shorter novels, it may not be as well-known as some of his other works, but it is definitely a great introduction to the Chinese author, and not only because it is only $4 on Amazon for the Kindle.
The book describes life in a peasant village where farmers are told by the government to plant only one crop: garlic. When those same officials refuse to purchase the crop one year, the townspeople resort to violence, which brings down the hammer of law enforcement. The farmers are rounded up and put in jail, where they find themselves trapped in Kafakesque situations. The police at times seem almost human, but in the end they are as distant as the government that oppresses the people. Traditional Chinese marriages are also examined in the book, with one of the larger sub-plots concerning two hapless garlic farmers falling in love and trying to find happiness in spite of the ongoing garlic crisis.
As already mentioned, Yan has garnered many comparisons to magical realists, but another apt comparison would be to Chuck Palahniuk, of Fight Club fame. Both authors use shocking content (whether it be peeing into a waiting customer’s soup or playing a game that involves drinking one’s own urine) that simultaneously revolt and engage readers. The narrative hops from person to person and back and forth in time, which rarely leads to confusion. Instead, it enhances the book by allowing the reader to see events from multiple perspectives. The result is a page-turner that even the most casual of readers can enjoy. The prose, even in translation, is still a wonder:
“The noonday sun beat down fiercely; dusty air carried the stink of rotting garlic after a prolonged dry spell. A flock of indigo crows flew wearily across the sky, casting a shadowy wedge.”
Interestingly, this book was once banned in China for its portrayal of farmer’s lives, and was brought back into circulation only after the writer achieved fame. Mo Yan, who has been criticized for failing to criticizing the Chinese government, and for refusing to associate with dissident writers, is not someone you would expect to write such a work. As harsh in its message as “The Grapes of Wrath,” the book is sure to silence any who do not think the Nobel winner is as critical as he should be.
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been under fire recently for choosing little-known and lightweight authors over living legends, but this book alone proves that Yan not only deserved the award, but also the money the prestigious prize brings in. He is not a writer to be taken lightly.