For Two Thousand Years

You can find my review of Mihail Sebastian’s beautiful novel For Two Thousand Years in Issue 9 of Shiny New Books! out today. Please do go and have a look!

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

Maigret by Georges Simenon

12 August, 2015


I’m going to tell you everything, Uncle. I’m in big trouble. If you don’t help me, if you don’t come to Paris with me, I don’t know what will become of me. I’m going out of my mind.

Georges Simenon’s 19th novel featuring his eponymous detective Maigret which was first published in 1934 is my first foray into the famous detective’s world. In this episode of the detective’s long literary career, Maigret is enjoying his retirement in the countryside with his wife when his nephew, Philippe, comes knocking at the door late one night.

A rookie cop following in the footsteps of his uncle, Philippe is still young and naive and has found himself in trouble. On a stakeout for a drugs raid in Floria, a night club in rue Fontaine, Philipe takes the initiative to wait inside the club against orders and promptly finds himself with the corpse of the suspect on his hands. Rattled, he runs off leaving behind his fingerprints and is also seen by a witness. Having nowhere to hide, he begs his uncle for help.

And so begins a cat and mouse chase as Maigret returns to Paris to find the killer. Some of his colleagues, especially Detective Chief Inspector Amadieu who took over from Maigret, are none too pleased to find him back in his former workplace. However, when Philipe is arrested for murder, Maigret sets about catching the real culprit but this time without the authority of his badge. With the help of Fernande, a prostitute who frequents the Floria, Maigret must pit his wits against an intelligent and ruthless man who holds the strings to the case, and Philippe’s freedom.

Maigret was an interesting story because it showed the detective’s chase from the other side of the official fence. What struck me was the gritty, adult nature of the novel. There is sex, there is violence and real evil. Without being explicit, nevertheless the harsh reality of a criminal life and the psychology of the criminal mind is all there. This isn’t some cosy crime caper, it’s a gritty noir. It’s somehow difficult to believe that this was written in the mid-30s. There’s a lot of smoking, drinking and flirting going on. It’s a different world to what we know now, but it brings back a whiff of nostalgia mixed in with modern grittiness that I would like to revisit again.

At an event celebrating Simenon’s work, his son John said he wanted readers to become addicted to his father’s books. This short, sharp tale will do just that.

Master and Margarita 2

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.

At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.

At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.

In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?

Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.

The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.

Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.

Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.


Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to a reception held at the Groucho Club to celebrate Georges Simenon and his most famous creation, Inspector Maigret. Like many, I knew a lot about Maigret and watched a couple of episodes of the English TV adaptation starring Michael Gambon except that I hadn’t actually read any of his novels as I was obsessed by Agatha Christie when I was younger. But my first literary love has always been crime fiction and so in preparation, I dipped my toes into the smoky and boozy world of Maigret.

As well as learning more about Simenon and his work, I was also looking forward to meeting John Simenon who gave an insightful talk about his father and his work. What was particularly interesting, and astounding for me, was that Simenon had written almost 400 novels, often writing 5 a year. His Inspector Maigret novels were first published in 1931 with Pietr the Latvian and there are almost 75 volumes, rivaling Agatha Christie. Both John and Penguin, who are republishing all of Simenon’s novels in new translations, are hoping that people will get hooked on the novels and devour them one after the another.

John Simenon

Simenon always saw himself as a craftsmen rather than an artist and was fascinated by the neurological and psychological aspects of crime. He was a humanist and was considerably influenced by the Church although he was often angry with it. He worked as a traveling journalist from 1919 to 1922, a period in which he made profound discoveries about his fellow men and what it meant to be human. The following decade was a period of apprenticeship where he produced pulp fiction until 1931 when he introduced Maigret to the world. But he soon wanted to change direction, moving on from crime, and began to publish his romans durs, what he called his pure, standalone novels. Regarding his writing habits, Maigret used a typewriter at first but then moved on to write with a pen and then edit and finish the draft with a typewriter. Even with such productivity, John recalls that Simenon always considered himself a father first and writer second.

And finally, we were all really excited to hear that a new TV adaptation of Maigret featuring Rowan Atkinson is in production. I can’t quite picture him as Maigret yet, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.

It was a lovely afternoon hearing John speak and to catch up with other bloggers including Annabel (do check out her post on the event) and to meet Sarah of Crimepieces, Elizabeth of Fictionbitch and Charlie of The Worm Hole. Thank you to John and Simenon UK for the kind invitation and for Penguin who supplied lots of Maigret titles for us to take away. I’d better get cracking!


Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People. Each one carefully scanned the room before emerging.


There is something about Haruki Murakami’s work that keeps drawing people back. I’m not exactly sure what it is. For me, it’s a warm cocoon, comfort, familiarity even though the themes addressed in his novels are often disturbing, ugly, stark. Even the otherness in his stories becomes a part of normality. And 1Q84 is no different. Yes, there are themes that are off-putting. One of my Japanese friends hesitated over giving a copy to her father to read.

From the title, I was expecting a riff on George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s actually much closer to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And there are abundant references to both in Murakami’s novel.

In 1Q84, Aomame and Tengo are our two protagonists, separated by 20 years since their last encounter, an innocent holding of hands which transformed both of their lives. Living separate lives, nevertheless, they retain strong feelings for each other. Aomame is a fitness trainer by profession who lets off steam once a month by having one night stands with balding middle-aged men. She also works for the mysterious Dowager and her gay bodyguard Tamaru as an occasional assassin of men prone to domestic violence. Tengo is a cram school teacher in mathematics who writes fiction in his spare time and has sex with his married girlfriend once a week. Both are solitary but content with their lives. Until Tengo is given the task of ghostwriting Air Chrysalis, a debut novel by a 17 year old high school girl named Fuka-Eri, which wins a prestigious award and sells millions.

There is something a little strange about Fuka-Eri whose father was once the leader of a socialist, revolutionary and later religious cult/commune named Sakigake. Her tale is at once strange and magical. And when Aomame starts to notice uncanny changes in her timeline, she increasingly begins to suspect that she has somehow slid into another timeline, one she calls 1Q84 instead of 1984. And it is then that she notices there are two moons hanging in the night sky. When Aomame is given the task of eliminating the leader of a cult who is rumoured to have a history of assaulting pre-pubescent girls, her destiny begins to veer towards that of Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Will Aomame and Tengo meet? And will they be able to evade the darkness that will inevitably hound them?

Like his other fantastical fiction, it is hard to summarise Murakami’s novel without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Murakami is adept at entwining the fantastical into the daily lives of his protagonists without too much fuss. It’s easy, gives you a little start at first, but their acceptance facilitates your acceptance. His clever manipulation of the different literary strands in his story is masterful. You know they will collide at some point, but Murakami does it subtly, inserting a name here, an incident there. Its inevitability is almost a recognition.

‘According to Checkhov,’ Tamaru said, rising from his chair, ‘once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.’

One of the things I like about Murakami’s style is his light touch. And yet the themes he addresses are often dark, sad and traumatic. He highlights the reality that most people go about their daily business often carrying unresolved emotional burdens. There is no one who is clean. That is reality. And yet, they go on with their lives and fantastical things happen.

Having seen widely differing reactions to 1Q84 which were negative for the most part, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. I took a luxurious stroll through Murakami’s world and didn’t even notice the change in translators from Books 2 to 3. Both Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel did a superb job and there wasn’t even a slight whisper of discord. What was harsh and shocking in the first half of the novel slowly mellows into something warm and precious as you grow to know Aomame and Tengo.

1Q84 has fast become one of my favourite novels by Murakami making me want to re-read Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle just so I can remember just why I fell in love with his writing.

Fear and Trembling

Considered by many to be the enfant terrible of francophone literature, Amélie Nothomb has been a bestselling author of short, caustic novellas usually focused on herself and her country of birth, Japan. So I began reading Fear and Trembling with some trepidation, have stopped and started it several times before, wondering whether this small book was going to be a typical novel by a foreigner of an ‘exotic’ land. But there is often truth in why an author garners so much attention, and I discovered this in Fear and Trembling.

It’s hard not to see this novel as autobiographical. The main character is a Belgian woman named Amélie who returns to Tokyo to work for a large Japanese cooperation for a year because she wants to reconnect with a country she loves. As a minion of the lowest rank, she takes orders from her direct superior, a tall and willowy career woman of 29 named Miss Fubuki Mori. There is also Mr. Saito, Fubuki’s superior, a kindly but ineffective man. Mr. Omochi, his superior, who likes to shout and humiliate his employees. And Mr. Haneda, the President or ‘God’, to whom Amélie is forbidden to speak.

Amélie is instantly smitten by Fubuki but quickly realises that her beautiful boss who is unmarried hides a collection of complexes which casts any younger woman as a rival to be subdued. And so begins a sustained campaign by Fubuki to humiliate and constrain Amélie’s time and purpose at the office. What starts off as a darkly comic look at the state of Japan in the early nineties during the Bubble period quickly transforms into an existential query into what it is not only to be Japanese and working in a corporate environment but the nature of work, existence and acceptance.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like Nothomb’s take on working in a Japanese office, but her observations and realisations are so off-beat that I couldn’t help but smile at the caustic and yet gentle snipes at Japanese corporate life. There is a real understanding of what it’s like to live and work in Japan and the only surprise is that it wasn’t written by a Japanese writer. The style and translation by Adriana Hunter mirrors some of the contemporary Japanese literature that has been translated into English and I was completely convinced by the experiences which the fictional Amélie undergoes.

Some of the most excruciating humiliations, the silent conflict between two women working in such close proximity while hating each other is so familiar that you wonder why there aren’t more novels like this out there. The endless monotony of office life, the meaningless sums and endless filing that is repeated day after day. And yet, it is the fictional Amélie’s youth, positivity and insane way in which she rationalises and turns her misfortunes around which ultimately saves Fear and Trembling from becoming a depressing view of what is essentially an alien culture to Western eyes. No matter how much Amélie loves Japan, she will always be an outsider because she is a foreigner.

I was impressed with the stark and yet soulful manner in which Nothomb executes her slice of expatriate experience that I will be rushing to my sister’s to read her collection of Nothomb’s novels including The Character of Rain and The Life of Hunger.

I read this as part of #ReadWomen2014.


Three Fat Men

Published in the very early years of the new Soviet regime and before the horror of Stalin’s rise to power, Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men is considered one of the most important pedagogic books for young communists and an instrument of state propaganda and is controversial even now.

The Three Fat Men
is a satirical allegory, a mixture of folktales with names recalling Shakespeare’s Italian comedies. I’m not sure whether that is to make it seem universal, but the setting is a country tightly ruled by the Three Fat Men who are greedy, lazy and gluttons and who take all the grain, coal and iron from their people and give back nothing. When Prospero the armourer and Tibullus the tightrope walker incite revolution, the Three Fat Men’s soldiers set out to capture them and throw Prospero in jail. Tibullus manages to escape and is helped by Dr. Gaspar, a highly regarded intellectual, who coincidentally is given the task of bringing the Three Fat Men’s heir, Tutti’s, golden haired doll back to life or face death. When the doll is lost, Gaspar despairs until he meets Tibullus’ young friend Suok, a dancing girl at the circus, who is the spitting image of the doll. And so they concoct a plan to get Suok into the palace, save Gaspar and set Prospero free.

Olesha’s tale reminded me strongly of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (even though it is from a completely opposite ideology) and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy with their clear demarcation of right and wrong, good and evil. The Three Fat Men and their soldiers are evil as opposed to the common folk who are being robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Its strong and simple ethical message is hard to ignore and is actually a good tool for teaching children. However, as with many stories in this vein, children would probably miss the communist subtext which for many adults will be hard to separate with actual events and the violent history of Soviet Russia.

Although a very short book, I confess that I found it rather difficult to get into and it only became interesting once Suok was smuggled into the palace when things begin to move quickly. However, there were some very funny moments, such as the reaction of the Three Fat Men and important court officials to little Tutti’s tantrums and, even more bizarre, the balloon seller being dressed up as cake and worried he would be eaten before escaping through a bottomless pot and ending up in a cabbage patch. The message of the book itself is one I rather agree with but I’m not entirely sure I understand why it’s such a popular book when there are more interesting fairy tales around unless you grew up reading it, which seems the case in many Eastern European and post-Soviet countries. I have a copy of the illustrated Soviet version which made me see it more as a children’s book and I will be passing it on to my nephews and niece to polish their moral compass.

As this was a book group choice, we had an interesting discussion regarding the purpose of this book and its construction as propaganda for communism. And it seems especially pertinent regarding recent events between Russia and the Ukraine. I probably liked it the least but most of my book group found it highly enjoyable and it sparked an interesting discussion.

Raven by Vasyl Shkliar

3 March, 2014


Freedom for Ukraine, or Death.

Vasyl Shkliar’s historical novel, Raven, can be described as a revolutionary adventure set after the four year war resulting in Ukraine’s annexation by Russia in 1921. It’s a romantic vision of the Ukrainian resistance centring around Kholodnyi Yar, in the central region of Ukraine. Shkliar’s freedom fighters, including Raven, who leads a faction of the outlaws, living within rigid rules of honour and conduct as opposed to the treacherous Russian communists, especially the Chekists (the Bolshevik secret police) who would do anything to capture these men, are patriotic heroes refusing to bow to communist rule and spend their days in guerrilla warfare and sabotage, risking their lives and forsaking their families for a free homeland. Shkliar’s style and the wonderful translation by S.J. Speight and Stephen Komarnyckyj make this an entertaining and thrilling read studded with pockets of philosophical musings. Shkliar mixes fact and fiction and digs deep into Cossack folklore which gives this masculine tale a romantic edge, probably one of the reasons why it is so popular in the Ukraine considering the current political climate. I’m sure the reality would have been a lot more gruesome and violent than depicted in this novel, but Shkliar holds back just enough to make Raven a novel of hope.

The novel begins with the supposed death and burial of Otoman Veremii, a Ukrainian rebel and military leader of such mythic proportion that the Russians refuse to believe that he has died and go hunting for his body. Raven himself is a man of myth, fitting into the heroic mold of the Ukrainian Cossack warrior with a full black beard and long hair, reputedly born strapped with a sword; invincible, clever, uncapturable. He is never without his horse, Mudei, a white stallion, proud and fearless. His fight with the communists is one not just of the body but of the mind, spying, counter-spying and using information to confuse and mislead them. Together with the other Otamans, Raven raids grain stores to feed his people and gathers intelligence to try and stop the Russians from gaining even more control of his beloved country. There are many adventures and we meet many of Raven’s contemporaries, Cossack bandits with honour and fury that burn bright. And when Raven meets Tina, a beautiful actress, fighting her own battle against the Russians, he falls in love and tries to forge a path that includes her without sacrificing his principles.

It’s an interesting novel in that it is a mixture of adventure, history and also comedy. The darkness of the struggle is alleviated with occasional bursts of comic moments that take you by surprise. In some ways, it follows the traditions of the Russian masters (how ironic considering the main struggle in the novel is in direct opposition to the Russians) and although I am unfamiliar with Ukrainian literature, I’m assuming it shares a similar literary heritage. Even though Raven is a novel about war, revolution and resistance, it is softened somewhat by philosophy and romance.

The only thing that held me back is the confusion with names and titles (such as Otaman which I kept getting confused with the Turkish Ottoman) but this is due to my unfamiliarity with Ukrainian history and culture. There is a helpful glossary at the end of the book and it did make me want to explore Ukrainian history and literature in more detail which is a good thing. Nevertheless this was an enjoyable read and once again made me feel the strength of the Cossack mythos.

Do also check out Stu’s review of Raven.

I would like to thank Aventura eBooks for kindly sending me a copy of the book to review.

Big Breasts Wide Hips

My first foray into recent Nobel prize-winning literature is Mo Yan’s satirical ode to China’s modern history, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read this book if it wasn’t for my book group but I’m glad I did. (I seem to say this about all my book group choices which means the choices tend to be outside my comfort zone which is the whole point of being in a book group. Win win.)

I have to admit the beginning of Big Breasts and Wide Hips almost defeated me. It’s not the easiest book to read, meandering all over the place and generally being too wordy. And yet, there is a certain charm to Mo Yan’s treatment of what is often a brutal and savage history. The light, comic touches with which he brushes aside the extreme nature of China’s transition into the modern world without rendering any of the experiences futile. I laughed as much as I winced in pain at the harsh life lessons thrown to Shangguan Lu, the Mother, whose resilience provides the backbone to her large, mainly female family. With seven elder sisters and a twin sister, the narrator is the much-loved and longed-for son, whose otherwise assured life is thrown upside down by the civil war and fighting which tears through 400 years of traditional Manchu rule. What is unfortunate to the narrator proves to be a golden opportunity for his sisters; all strong-willed and bent upon finding their own paths in life, brushing aside what would have been a traditionally submissive and slavish existence.

One of the things I loved about Big Breasts and Wide Hips were the adventurous life choices made by the narrator’s sisters, not all of them wise, and most often ending in tragedy. But nevertheless, you feel as though they grabbed life by its horns and lived their lives to the fullest. Compared to them, the narrator is passive, an observer, swept along the tides of history, impotent to his own fate. I wanted to know more about the sisters: Laidi who runs away with a rebel, Zhaodi who marries the local warlord Sima Ku, Lingdi who falls in love with a Birdman and becomes a Bird Fairy, Xiangdi who sells herself to a brothel to feed her family, Pandi who turns Communist, Niandi who falls in love with an American, Qiudi sold to a Russian lady and Yunü, blind yet tough. All so vital and driven by their desperate search for meaning in their lives.

The ironic nature of history is first revealed as Xuan’er who later becomes Shangguan Lu, the narrator’s mother, is brought up with such care, her feet bound, to become a desirable wife to a rich man. Just on the cusp of adulthood, the government abolishes foot binding and she becomes a liability and has no choice but to marry a blacksmith from a lower class, a useless, sniveling son to a strong-willed mother with a fervent wish for a grandson. Xuan-er’s future is bleak as she is unable to get pregnant, and later when she bears daughters in succession, it is only her strong will and adaptive nature that keeps her alive including looking for prospective sperm donors.

The harsh lessons of history are all here. The atrocities committed by the Nationalists, Communists and the Japanese and the way the Chinese people had to cope with the upheavals in their lives that are beyond their control. It’s humbling to read about what people had to endure, especially when we know that reality is probably much more severe than fiction. However, Mo Yan dampens this considerably through ‘daft hilarity’ but this can sometimes make you feel as though the characters are jaded, that they can only go on living through just their actions rather than thought and the reader isn’t given enough emotional substance to process these events. I’m not sure if he gets the balance quite right. There’s been several criticism of Mo Yan’s award of the Nobel Prize including accusation of being a spokesperson for the People’s Republic of China and you can read about it here , here and here.

If the narrator’s obsession with breasts and breastfeeding doesn’t put you off, Mo Yan’s epic tale of China’s relentless march towards modernism via Communism is simultaneously heart-breaking and ludicrous that you will indeed think he is some kind of a genius to be able to pull off such a narrative.

The wordy, meandering nature of Mo Yan’s tale, the complex family relationships and the length of the book almost broke our book group. But if you do persist, it’s an incredibly dense and wonderful tale that celebrates life in all it’s absurdity and one that I did enjoy reading although it did take me a while to get into the book and a family tree would have been helpful.