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.