Mo Yan’s 1987 novel Red Sorghum is both beautiful and brutal. It reveals the author to be a master storyteller, willing to embrace the underside of the human psyche. Detailing the history of three generations of a single family, it is concerned with the process of historization and the brutalization of the natural world. The term ‘epic’ can aptly be applied: like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the novel begins with an invocation. Red Sorghum doesn’t invoke the gods, however, but instead the ‘heroic, aggrieved souls’ of the narrator’s ancestors.
The violence is unremittingly graphic. Although many sequences are profoundly disturbing, they are certainly not purposeless or an attempt to glorify the heroism of war. It is a stark, humane and honest portrayal of the consequences of violence. The torture of Uncle Arhat, skinned alive by a butcher on the orders of the invading soldiers, is particularly gruesome, yet Red Sorghum would be a lesser novel without it. This scene epitomises one of the prevailing themes of the novel: that violence erodes our humanity. It is crucial that a butcher performs the torture; Uncle Arhat is treated as an animal, and consequently reduced to ‘a mass of meaty pulp’.
Man’s relationship to animals is also shown to be increasingly brutalized, as horses and tanks collide on the battlefield. There’s a spectacular sequence in which the family battles a pack of feral dogs, who have taken to eating human corpses. The circle of life is brutalized and becomes a relentless cycle of death. The dogs are blown apart by grenades, and their remains are devoured by white eels, who fight ‘over the dog meat and dog blood’. When the second round of grenades hits the river, the eels themselves are slaughtered; the cycle of death keeps turning. Curiously, the corpse-eating dogs are humanised in their moment of agony: they are said to raise ‘an imploring howl, as though calling for their mothers and fathers’. As victims, the animals are elevated and acquire a human quality of expression.
There is a sense of redemption for the human characters, too, albeit a subtly stated one. The dialogue between the Japanese soldiers is left untranslated; the reader, like the protagonists, is unable to connect with the soldiers. This suggests an impassable gulf between the two civilisations, with the implication that there is no hope of an end to the violence. Yet there is another scene which negates this bleak message, and seems to apply that all humans are alike, after all. Forty six years later, our narrator witnesses the opening of a mass grave, the resting place of Communist, Nationalist, and Japanese soldiers, and the civilians embroiled in the violence. He states,
I doubt that even the provincial party secretary could have told which of them belonged to Communists, which to Nationalists, which to Japanese soldiers, which to puppet soldiers, and which to civilians. The skulls all had the exact same shape, and all had been thrown into the same heap.
The experience of violence and brutality ultimately comes to present a hopeful message to the future generation, although this realisation comes at a great price.