Mo Yan (莫言) – Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜薹之歌). A very brief review.
The chapters alternate around an event that cannot be spoken of directly, it seems, not at first. We approach either from the past (the fractious courtship of Gao Ma and Jinju) or the future (the arrest and incarceration of Gao Yang), blind to the significance of these events or their relevance to the central event, which is only spoken of (to begin with) in the short fragments of songs – the garlic paradise songs of the title – that precede each chapter, marking the oscillations in time.
But what is the link between the past and the future? The past timeline is domestic strife, arranged marriages being rebelled against, families turning on one another. The future is police brutality, a state system under no obligation to explain itself (nor make its link with the characters clear). How are the two pictures related? What compels the police to arrest and torture half the characters who initially are only locked in a dispute over dowries and weddings? That seems to me to be the opening of the book’s great strength, an unwillingness to show how or why the state chooses to come down on individuals.
The connection, in the end, is piecemeal, coalescing in the destruction of a party building, a mob act that grew from all kinds of individual frustrations and distinct complaints against the local government. The later horror of the book is more that the detention of Gao Yang and others is not some enigmatic, symbolic but ultimately impenetrable manifestation of the workings of power, but rather (as we learn its causes, its reasons) the actions of a cutthroat class of bureaucrats taking what is logically the correct path to minimise dissent and reimpose order. State violence works.