By Chet Yarbrough
Life and Death are Wearing Me Out
By Mo Yan (Translated by Howard Goldblatt)
Narrated by Feodor Chin
Cultural understanding is missing from Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out”. Mo Yan chooses to use reincarnation to bind China’s twentieth century history together. 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?
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, presumably, be cleansed of his sins. Despite severe torture, Ximen Nao refuses purgatory’s judgment of his 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, the reincarnated donkey, gains a grudging respect for his former employee because the employee steadfastly resists public ownership (being part of the communist co-op) of property and insists on being an independent farmer. (Communist China’s law allows a farmer to be independent of a cooperative if they choose to work the land themselves.)
The former employee and his new 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 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 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 son against father, brother against brother, and compels women to choose between family and a communist’ collective way of life.
Capitalism and its belief in 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.
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.