Mo Yan: “Bull” from The New Yorker, 11/26/12

Chinese Art Tapestry on Ebay

If getting rich had been on my father’s agenda, he’d have had no trouble becoming the wealthiest man in the village, of that I’m sure. But he was a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property. You’ve seen critters like squirrels and rats dig holes to store food, but who’s ever seen a tiger, the king of the animals, do something like that? Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in their lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey. Similarly, my father spent most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income. Never for a moment did he resemble Lao Lan and people of that ilk, who accumulated blood money, putting a knife in white and taking it out red. Nor was he interested in going down to the train station to earn a porter’s wages by the sweat of his brow, like some of the coarser village men. Father made his living by his wits.

The good news: This story is available online, and might give some of us who haven’t ventured into this territory our first taste of the newest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And it’s a fun story, with a clear conflict and an interesting point of view.

The bad news: It’s an excerpt (of the forthcoming novel POW.

The good/bad news: It’s also, of course, a translation, which, though of course necessary and a great benefit to those of us illiterate in all but one language, always makes me nervous. I’m so glad to see Betsy back in the comment section at The Mookse and the Gripes (I just learned she’ll be posting regularly there from now on, which is wonderful news), and she once again provides insight by enumerating the ways this translation might go wrong:

Given that the Chinese language is full of associations, cognates, allusions and double meanings, what proved untranslatable?…. in this case, how Chinese literature in particular plays into the story telling.
And then, there are my specific questions. Is there something to know about why Mo Yan named a character “Wild Mule”? (Does it have some particular meaning to the Chinese reader that it doesn’t have to us?) When Luo Tong gets bathed in the blood of the bull, he turns “red”. (What associations does this bear for the Chinese reader? Does he or she make any association, as we do, with “Red” China? Or are there other historical associations with the color red, in whose blood Luo Tong has been baptized?) And how about that title? Does “Bull” carry any connotations of ‘bull market” in contemporary Chinese usage, or “Bull!” in the way we use it, to express outright disbelief? I’m not sure any of this is readily available to the casual reader, and so wonder why the New Yorker doesn’t, as a matter of course, pursue at least some of these question when publishing a work in translation.

Translator Howard Goldblatt does have some interesting comments in the Page-Turner interview, but it’s far more general and doesn’t cover the excellent points Betsy raises (god, I’ve missed Betsy so much). And while Googling reveals some clues – red can be a symbol of good luck, the bull or ox is associated with perseverance, hard work, materialism, methodical progress, rigid determination if bulls and oxen are the same at all – it’s absurd to use “The Internet” as a basis for literary interpretation.

The story is a showdown between cattle farmer Lao Lan and cattle appraiser Luo Tong, told through Tong’s son, Xiaotong. Lao Lan, the “bad guy,” injects water or formaldehyde into his beef carcasses to increase weight and keep the appearance fresher longer. Luo Tong has the singular talent of knowing how much meat an animal will yield, simply by looking at it. He’s known for his honesty, refusing bribes from the farmers and buyers alike. While he does have this honesty, he lacks ambition and motivation. Which might be why he’s so honest.

The showdown occurs when Xiaotong witnesses his father’s humiliation at the hands of Lao Lan: the boy is outraged his father merely accepts a warm stream of piss pointed in his direction, then, even worse, picks up money thrown in the puddle thereof. But the tone changes when Lan’s bull gets loose.

Just reading on a surface level, then, it’s surprisingly high action, coupled with the emotional response of a boy who does but doesn’t quite understand his father is fooling around on Mom with Wild Mule, mistress of the town wine shop. He’ll understand better when he and his mother are abandoned. But that’s only mentioned in passing in this story. I suspect it’s a much deeper tale – it must be – but for an excerpt, this action scene will have to do. Perhaps it establishes how quickly a hero can fall, and rise again. Something about the nature of humiliation, about accepting one’s share when one deserves it. Something about ambition and honesty, certainly. Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. Which makes it, however entertaining, in the end, an excerpt – an ending without a conclusion – and leaves us in mid-air… dying to read the book? Well, no. But I’m glad I read the story.

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