Monday, April 06, 2009

Book Review: Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, by Mo Yan

This is a short story collection by a writer who has been described as a Chinese Kafka, and whose magical realist style is compared to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are eight stories of varying length, written over twenty years, and a preface.

My favourite part of this book was actually the preface, which was absolutely amazing. Mo Yan talks about why he writes, explaining how hunger and loneliness were his muses, how his life growing up in China prepared him to write. It's a really fascinating glimpse into the mind and life of this writer.

The stories have a range of different themes, all relevant to contemporary life in China. Love, politics, unemployment, and the effects of the one-child-law all feature. There are some very funny but dark moments. Most of these stories lack happy endings, instead they show how people get in the way of each other's happiness and how trusting hearts are broken when people innocently believe the lies of those in power.

Although I was fascinated by the culture in these stories and found the descriptions of the Chinese landscape very beautiful, and admired Mo Yan's skill, I was never truly drawn into the stories. I suspect that this is the point, however. Readers are not supposed to escape into Mo Yan's writing, they are meant to be entertained but take away the messages and critiques of society that the writer offers. I did appreciate this, but it means I didn't get hooked on the book and was happy to finish it over several weeks, reading on train journeys mostly. Although there are parts of these stories that I will probably always remember and I may re-read the preface at some point, I can't imagine reading the whole thing again.

I would recommend this book to fans of Mo Yan's novels, short stories in general and magical realism, and those interested in contemporary Chinese life. The stories and preface are extremely well-written and you can take a lot away from this book. It is a short book, only 224 pages long and is ideal for reading on the train or whilst otherwise travelling as it will slip into a decent sized handbag or rucksack easily.

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