Mo Yan: “Bull”
11/21/2012 § 2 Comments
Originally published in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012. (Translated, from the Chinese, by Howard Goldblatt.)
I’m told that this is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming Pow!, so I can forgive it for lacking punch in of itself, but even the windup is weak, and if this story is supposed to be darkly, absurdly funny, then something isn’t being translated properly. For instance, the narrator’s father, Luo Tong, is described by his son as a notorious wastrel (whom he nonetheless greatly admires, as is the tradition). In one sentence, he is “a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property”; in the next, he is now a tiger: “Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in their lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey.” Repetition doesn’t enhance the story or its rhythms either. In case the previous description/comparison wasn’t clear: “Similarly, my father spend most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income.” Then again, perhaps all the people of this village are scoundrels: Tong’s rival, Lao Lan, is renowned for inventing “the scientific method of forcing pressurized water into the pulmonary arteries of slaughtered animals,” which is to say, he dummies up the weight of an animal for sale at the butchers by cutting its meat with water. Though it’s clear that neither Lan nor Tong are geniuses, how well can we judge them for their unorthodox methods (Tong can “weigh” an animal on sight, the sort of genius that leads susceptible sons to assume their fathers are geniuses), or for frequenting and quarreling over the same local whore?
The frothy head of this story comes abruptly and, even in context, inexplicably. The cattle merchants — described as an odd, isolated lot — arrive in the middle of the night, and Luo Tong and the butchers meet up with them in the morning to make their deals. They are interrupted, however, by Lao Lan (who is working with the butchers), who steps over to Luo Tong and son, whips out his tool, and “let loose a stream of burned-yellow piss right in front of my father and me…. His piss landed on our feet and on our legs, some even spraying into our faces and our mouths.” It’s unclear why they stand there and take this rather vulnerable and exposed form of insult, especially in Luo Tong’s case: “My father remained silent, as if he were dead.” Oh, by the way, did Mo Yan forget to mention that Lao Lan had brought his white-faced (i.e., castrated) bull with him? Just as suddenly, the bull is breaking free and attacking his swaggering master, and basically no sooner had the son been disavowing his faceless father than the father has redeemed himself by taming the bull. We know that Luo Tong is a man who oscillates between extremes, and that he will soon cast aside his family life to live entirely with the whorish, pleasure-first Wild Mule, but it’s almost impossible to get a bead on his motivations here, particularly through the son’s somewhat confused narrative. Mo Yan’s plotting ends up feeling contrived and meaningless, and much of the interesting factual stuff — about these two men and their abilities to game the system — is sloughed off in the rush to make something happen in this excerpt. There are themes, sure: the son’s cycling respect for the father, and the passive father’s story-ending defense of his son (“How dare you say things like that in front of my son, you dog bastard!”), but they’re not supported by any real development. This isn’t to say that Mo Yan has an inability to do so: his depictions of these markets, his ability to conjure up a vivid (paragraph-long) pissing sequence, and his cultural touchstones are all solid things. But this piece has been cut, compressed, or decontextualized in the rush to get it into The New Yorker, and that has sapped it of much of its life and made it difficult to fully critique or analyze.
The most I can take away from Mo Yan’s work, then, is that there’s a splendid comedy in surprise metaphors: early on, while the son still respects his father, he describes the range of the things his father’s keen eye can weight as being the same as a master carpenter’s ability to “build a table but can also build a chair and, if he’s especially talented, a coffin.” The comparison alone is flat, but that inclusion of that third item — a coffin — is a surprise, the sort that elicits at least a grim chuckle, even when everything else is falling apart.