The Garlic Ballads – Mo Yan

The Garlic Ballads
It’s 3am and there is nothing but darkness around me. Every living soul has slipped into a deep slumber and all there is to hear is the murmur of my breathing. The pillow doesn’t seem to listen to the calls of my weary neck and the tang of crisp garlic slowly creeps into the room as I recollect my early dinner. I never bothered about this tiny pungent bulb until last week. The half- torn smile on the vegetable vendor now bothers me too when I dismiss purchasing his wares. Now, all I can see in this darkness are the ripened blisters on Gao Yang’s feet as he digs in the clammy soil, sweat and mud making a mulch- like wax on his body. The blood that glistens as it leaves Gao Ma’s fresh wounds. I can feel Jinju’s tears and hear little Xinghua cry for her father, running to hold him for one last time. I can hear the musical notes in Zhang Kou’s ballads as the stench of the garlic grows stronger on my fingers. Did I forget to use soap or did I carry the pungent soil of Paradise County to my bed? “I’m not crying…..I’m not crying”, Gao Yang’s words resonate loudly disturbing the silent night.

“If everyone was on top, who would hold them up at the bottom? If everybody went to town for a good time, who would stay home to plant crops? When the old man up there made people, he used different raw materials. The good stuff went for officials…..and whatever left for us peasants, you and me, we’re made up of scraps and we’re lucky to be alive…..”

Are farmers really the scraps of a society? Yes, it seems like it. Doesn’t it? While we close the curtains to prevent the sunlight from interrupting our sleep, there are groups of family members that toil barefoot under the earliest warmth of a sunbeam and when a layer of sunscreen covers our skin, the blazing sun scalds the skin of the farmers gifting them sunburns and callous feet and yet, they toil in those fertile soils to produce the grain that keep us alive. What is a loaf of bread without a grain of wheat? Where does the food on our table stands, without its crop? Then, why are those that give us the prime essence of life are discarded like a bunch of maggot infested garlic stalks? Aren’t having resources of power a pathway to bring goodness in society? Why do people make power seem so evil? Farmers are the building blocks of a country; they produce the principle food that keeps us alive. Can’t we give them the respect they deserve? Are peasants fated to be thriving in poverty? Or is ‘fate’ a silly excuse to envelop the blood-sucking ways of elite parasites. China is an agrarian society- the land of farmers. A preposterous irony as the land becomes a rare property in the farmer’s life. Gao Yang, Gao Ma, the Fang family and the people of Paradise County, even with their shortcomings and imperfections deserved every ounce of respect without being subjected to being mere puppets in the struggle between disparity of power and governmental exploitation.

“People can endure anything”…… “I’m not crying…..I’m not crying…..”

Does the height of resilience magnify when challenged by the limits of rigidity to brutal adversities? Can a naive farmer endure the torture of being a victim of circumstances? Can a young love endure the cruelty carried under a class conflict and prejudices? Can the green and white virginal garlic endure its shameless pimping through the hands of corrupt officers? Can the stomach endure the tormented platter of crawling lice and urine soaked bun?

Mo Yan in this lyrical rural saga explores the lives of ordinary peasants who are subjugated for their impoverished existence and hardships further propelling them into a violent vortex. The pitiful plight of a farmer in the hands of the caustic prevalence of lawlessness. The lives of the Paradise County’s residents solely depended upon the harvesting and selling of the garlic crop. Garlic became the desired gold bars for Paradise County promising a new home to Gao Yang, a new bride to Gao Ma, monetary happiness to the Fang family and a new life for Jinju. As Gao Ma tightly squeezed Jinju’s milky hands and Gao Yang hoped for a better future for his children, Zhang Kou’s ehru assured his neighbors about the prosperous times that would even let the fried mutton forget the onions and embrace the garlic allure. Mo Yan juxtaposes three varied sub-plots against the backdrop of a post-revolutionary era encompassing the naivety of Gao Yang, the passionate love between Gao Ma and Jinju Fang and the rise and fall of the Fang family. The prose is watertight, constantly balancing these sub-plots binding various heterogeneous elements of social mores, arranged marriage, family, love, debauchery, contractual obligation, political anarchy to one homogeneous element- ‘garlic’.

“The people’s hearts are made of steel, but the Law is forge….”

A descendant of the landlord generation, Gao Yang is now a run of the mill farmer, whose only dream is to provide a dignified living to his family and live a debt-free live. True to his name Yang( the Chinese character connotation for ‘sheep’), Gao Yang is politically naive and thus resentfully accepts the incarceration on false grounds and the subsequent police brutality ranging from electric prods and other illegal tactics. Mo Yan when scripting this particular characterization, invested in empathetic tones that views Gao Yang to be the representative of those several peasants who only want to sell their wares and bring food to the table without any external conflicts. Thus, being the primary scapegoats of a flawed governmental justice system.

On the other hand, Fourth Aunt Fang is quite a crude for a mother (ask Jinju) to the point of being tyrannical on the familial front and shamelessly adhering the norms of dishonesty. Aunt Fang becomes the picture of those who go with the flow as long their home is safe from the disastrous flood.

“Everywhere you turn these days someone is trying to cheat us out of something. Anyone who doesn’t cheat back is a fool. If even the government co-op is dishonest, what’s to stop us poor peasant?…….”

But, this attitude changes when at last the flood of betrayal and fatality comes knocking at Aunt Fang’s door.

I’d die for Jinju… Jinju…..”

Gao Ma outshines the rest of the characters in this book. Mo Yan gave him the personality of a sturdy stallion that never accepts defeat even when wounded and tries to reach the finish line with poise and valor. A man, who fears nothing but the breaking of his heart and death of his love, stands tall through all his life crises saluting the beaming significance of his name Ma (Chinese element connotation for ‘horse’).

“Is not socialism I hate, it’s you. To you socialism is a mere signboard, but to me it’s a social formation – concrete, not abstract. It’s embedded in public ownership of the means of production and in a system of distribution. Unfortunately, it’s also embodied in a corrupt life like you”……“I hate corrupt officials like you, who under the guise of the flag of the Communist Party destroy its reputation. I hate you……”

Inspired by the 1987 uprising, Mo Yan mainly focuses on the aftermath of the revolt and the events that foremost became one of the many reason of crop rebellion exposes the inadequacies of a functioning body and the tragedy of human truth. In the 1980s, the Chinese government had adapted the ‘Household- responsibility’ policies, whereby the farmers and the government/ county officials were bound under contractual obligation of producing a certain quota of sanctioned crop and the farmers would then be appropriately compensated for their harvest. This also gave the leeway to the farmers of selling their left-over produce in the free market. Although this scheme was widely successful in the agricultural domain, certain lawless element cleverly seeped in sowing the seeds of corruption. The Garlic Ballads revolve around this ideological aspect, where people of Paradise County were urged to grow garlic as their main crop. Nonetheless, their celebratory dance of prosperity was tainted by the economic glut and abundance of taxation penalties that became mandatory with every route taken to sell the crop. Money had become the autocratic king and corruption the ruthless concubine.

Mo Yan illustrates a tangential shift from his other books (Red Sorghum & Wide Hips….), investing mostly on the deplorable lives of the peasants intertwined between the acrid governmental retaliation and jumble of worship and righteousness. It is a harmonious ballad of hallucinatory realism amalgamating into the nauseating odor of decaying pungency where fated lives were trampled under the covetous tyrants emitting the “stink of suffering”.

“Paradise County once produces bold heroic men,
Now we see nothing but flaccid week-kneed cowards,
With furrowed brows and scowling faces:
They sigh and fret before their rotting garlic”

In the days gone by, music was the sole pathway of expressing sorrows and happiness because when truthful words from the mouth are severely punished and the frogs who try to croak are found belly up the very next moment, music/ballads become the only savior of a rickety soul.

The stench of rotting garlic permeated the repulsive atmosphere of anguish and inhumanity. The spicy aroma of the green and white crop infused into every aspect of the survival of the County’s inhabitants. Not only did their bodies reek of garlic but their peace was tainted by its acidity. Garlic becomes the true evil rising above every corrupt official, bloody conflicts, patriarchal tyranny, feminist reforms and above all the lives of the peasants. The braided stalks of garlic compelled a mother to disallow her child to become a part of a sadistic world, it made blindness look like a blessing of God; it criminalized love and created wars among countrymen. The ballads of love and life reeked of garlic spiraling into tragic hopelessness and rebellion mayhem, fate being the only element that scripted the entire narration.

Sleeps in the damp soil sweet as nectar, pungent and crunchy as it grows,
For pork and mutton a blessing in disguise, kowtows a steamy bun in love,
A new house, a new bride, new clothes, promise the heavenly angelic cloves,
Corruption, poverty, treachery, a pot of gold, harvest administrative hoax,
Watering the hopeless drought, broken hearts, hungry faith spewing fireballs,
Ballads of Zhang Kou , weeps the trembling earth as the frogs croak no more
The stink of suffering, bellyful of grievances, lost in threads of regal couture
From hearts of Paradise County garlic, streams the blood of a peasant’s soul.



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