By Chet Yarbrough
By Mo Yan (Translated by Howard Goldblatt)
Narrated by Feodor Chin
Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out suggests reincarnation has a downside.
China becomes communist in the 1940s under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Communism seeks re-distribution of private land into cooperatives to benefit the many at the expense of the few. Mo Yan’s story begins with China’s communist revolution and the unjust murder and confiscation of a landowner’s farm.
The murdered landowner is Ximen Nao. After death, Ximen Nao falls into an imagined purgatory to be, presumably, cleansed of his sins. Despite severe torture, Ximen Nao refuses purgatory’s judgment of sin. In consequence, or happenstance, he is reincarnated as a donkey. The twist in his reincarnation is that he remembers his former life. Returning to life as a donkey, he meets former employees, a wife, two mistresses, and his children.
Ximen Nao, as a donkey, returns to his homeland and finds that his former employee has married one of his mistresses and is farming 6 acres of his confiscated land. Ximen Nao, as a reincarnated donkey, gains a grudging respect for his former employee. The employee steadfastly resists public ownership (becoming part of a communist co-op) and insists on being an independent farmer. (Communist China’s law allows a farmer to be independent if they choose to work the land themselves.)
The former employee and his wife become emotionally attached to the donkey because they believe it is a reincarnation of an important person in their lives. (Later, Ximen Nao’s wife consciously acknowledges that the donkey is a reincarnation of her husband.) The independent farmer and his wife cherish the donkey’s existence and its aid in farming the land. Several incidents involving the donkey, and future animal incarnations, reflect on life in China during Mao Zedong’s reign.
Mo Yan straddles acceptance and rejection of communism and China’s current form of capitalism. His story skewers both political systems. In Mo Yan’s story, communism and its belief in public ownership are defeated by human nature’s drive for freedom and independence. The independent farmer lives through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and witnesses the return of a capitalist form of property ownership. Mo Yan denigrates communism’s intrusion in family affairs and how it turns a son against father, brother against brother, and compels women to choose between family and a communist’ collective way of life.
Capitalism and unfettered freedom are also ridiculed. Mo Yan characterizes capitalism in a story about the lives of spoiled youth. Youth that live off their family’s wealth; living for adventure; denigrating love, productive work, and respect for tradition and family. Mo Yan shows how singular pursuit of wealth corrupts morality; how leisure becomes more important than caring for others or working for human improvement.
Cultural understanding is missing from Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out”. Mo Yan binds reincarnation to China’s twentieth century history. The choice of reincarnation adds humor but suggests something more than laughs. The story begins with a murdered man who comes back as a donkey, then as an ox, a pig, a dog, and finally as another man—funny, but is there rhyme or reason in the order?
Is there some significance in the order of Ximen Nao’s reincarnations? Ximen Nao is first reincarnated as a donkey, then as an ox, then as a pig, then as a dog, and finally as another man. It is a clever way of observing history through the prism of different animal’s lives. It also makes one wonder about humankind’s ethnocentricity and failure to respect all living things.
Finding the right balance in life is an overriding theme in Mo Yan’s story. As the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi suggests, “Nothing in excess”; Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and many others have suggested moderation in all things. Mo Yan suggests that both Chinese communism and capitalism fail to offer the right balance in life.