Nobody can accuse Mo Yan of thinking small. In dozens of stories and novels, he has tackled China's tumultuous past century with a mix of magical realism and sharp-eyed satire that has made him one of the most famous, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers. His Red Sorghum was turned into a prizewinning 1987 movie by director Zhang Yimou and picked by Chinese readers in a 1996 poll as their favorite novel. Mo Yan's Northeast Gaomi County, a fictional realm based on his hardscrabble hometown in the eastern province of Shandong, is as vivid a spot on the literary landscape as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha or Thomas Hardy's Wessex. Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is among many admirers who insist that Mo Yan deserves the gong himself. Given the prize committee's distaste for success, that means he'll probably never get one.
Certainly not if they read the latest Mo Yan novel to hit the West. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, the author's ninth, more than lives up to his reputation and has acquired one of its own. Written a decade ago, the book was at first banned over concerns that the Republican side in the Chinese civil war gets off too gently, but later became a best seller. The original has been trimmed considerably by the respected American translator Howard Goldblatt, though it's still a monster, with scores of characters and more action than an Indiana Jones movie. "You can skip my other novels, but you must read Big Breasts and Wide Hips," Goldblatt quotes the author as saying. "In it I wrote about history, war, politics, hunger, religion, love and sex." Ah, sex. Goldblatt is a bit worried about that. Said the translator in an interview: "I'm afraid the feminists will crucify us over that title."
They should cheer instead. Big Breasts is a celebration of the power of women as well as a lament about the fecklessness of men in the world's oldest phallocracy. Mo Yan tells the story of Shangguan Lu, born in the last days of the Qing dynasty, raised with bound feet and married off to an infertile Northeast Gaomi blacksmith who is, she concludes, "a useless gob of snot outside the house and totally subservient in front of his mother." Desperate for a son, the girl cultivates a succession of other dolts and losers, who give her seven consecutive daughters named Laidi (Brother Coming), Pandi (Brother Anticipated), Niandi (Brother Wanted), and so on. After a coupling with Pastor Malloy, an ineffectual Swedish missionary, she finally produces a son, yellow-haired Jintong (Golden Boy), who is the book's narrator. Selfish and indulgent, Jintong remains breast-fed until well into his teens. "Do you plan to suck until you reduce me to a piece of dry kindling?" asks his exasperated mother.
As the tale gallops through the birth of the Chinese republic, the Japanese occupation, the civil war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the money-obsessed Deng Xiaoping era, Jintong's feisty sisters are killed off by war and other masculine misdeeds. And, as in other Mo Yan novels, peasants suffer and bleed while Communist functionaries strut, blunder and suck the country dry as Jintong's mother's breasts. The lad survives, though not without 15 years in prison, three in a mental institution and nearly a lifetime in thrall to his mammary fixation. "Whenever I saw a beautiful breast, my mouth would fill with saliva," he confesses. That weakness brings him a mountain of trouble, and every time fortune smiles as when a cousin sets him up as chairman of a retail brassiere chain in the 1980s indecisiveness betrays him.
Mo Yan, who was born Guan Moye his pen name means "Don't Speak" isn't afraid to speak his mind, though sometimes to the point of numbness. In case you didn't notice, Big Breasts' women are strong, its men and the society they run are, like Jintong, "useless, worse than useless." That would be a subversive message in China if it weren't for a familiar proverb favored by Mao Zedong: "Women hold up half the sky." With Mo Yan and his sprawling, energetic novel pleading their case, they may finally get some credit for it.