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The Garlic Ballads

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The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government has encouraged them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as simple as they believed. Warehouses fill up, taxes skyrocket, and government officials maltreat even those who have traveled for days to sell their harvest. A surplus on the garlic market ensues, and the farmers must watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields. Families are destroyed by the random imprisonment of young and old for supposed crimes against the state.

The prisoners languish in horrifying conditions in their cells, with only their strength of character and thoughts of their loved ones to save them from madness. Meanwhile, a blind minstrel incites the masses to take the law into their own hands, and a riot of apocalyptic proportions follows with savage and unforgettable consequences. The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love between man and woman, father and child, friend and friend—and the struggle to maintain that love despite overwhelming obstacles.

286 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 1988

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About the author

Mo Yan

216 books1,176 followers
Modern Chinese author, in the western world most known for his novel Red Sorghum (which was turned into a movie by the same title). Often described as the Chinese Franz Kafka or Joseph Heller.

Mo Yan (莫言) is a pen name and means don't speak. His real name is Guan Moye (simplified Chinese: 管谟业; traditional Chinese: 管謨業; pinyin: Guǎn Móyè).

He has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 for his work which "with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary". Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were Red Sorghum (1987) and Big Breasts & Wide Hips (2004), as well as The Garlic Ballads.

Chinese version: 莫言

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Profile Image for Praj.
314 reviews788 followers
February 19, 2014

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.....my 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.
Profile Image for zumurruddu.
127 reviews102 followers
December 15, 2017
Che libro meraviglioso! questo Mo Yan mi ha preso il cuore, me l’ha spezzato, l’ha frantumato ben bene sotto i tacchi, e adesso mi lascia così sanguinante e palpitante, con negli occhi i colori saturi e brillanti di una campagna bucolica, nel naso l’odore nauseabondo dell’aglio putrefatto, degli escrementi, del vomito, sulla pelle e nelle ossa l’ingiuria delle percosse, nelle orecchie il canto delle gesta narrate, nell’anima lo strazio della sopraffazione…

Cosa raccontarne? è un romanzo di denuncia sociale, basato su un fatto realmente accaduto, una rivolta di contadini, coltivatori di aglio, che si ritrovarono con il raccolto invenduto in seguito a un’errata pianificazione. Il loro malcontento, sedimentato in anni, decenni (lustri, secoli…) di sopraffazioni, povertà, violenza, miseria… il loro malcontento esplode. Un mendicante cieco canta di questa sollevazione popolare all’inizio di ogni capitolo dando un tono epico alla narrazione, tono epico e visionario che comunque la percorre tutta, e che mi ha ricordato (paragone forse peregrino, scusate, l’ho letto molto tempo fa) un altro libro che ho molto amato, Rulli di tamburo per Rancas di Manuel Scorza.
Si fa fatica a inquadrare questa storia nel 1987, anno in cui sono realmente accaduti i fatti. Sembra medioevo. Poi compaiono cose come i manganelli elettrici e ci accorgiamo che no, non è medioevo.

È un romanzo crudo e crudele. Ma anche dolce e struggente, di una poesia intensa e cristallina: le pagine dedicate all’amore tra Gao Ma e Jinju, promessa a un altro uomo per un matrimonio combinato dai genitori (nel 1987, ripeto!), sono vibranti e coinvolgenti.

È un romanzo a tinte forti, odori forti, sapori forti, è per tutti e cinque i sensi, e anche di più.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,094 reviews3,836 followers
November 20, 2013
It feels wrong to give only 3* to a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I didn't enjoy this enough to give it four.

It is based on a true incident in the 1980s (though conditions described are so basic, it's a shock to realise how recent it is), when farmers rioted after the government refused to buy all the garlic it had told them to grow, because there of the resulting glut. I presume the individual characters are inventions, or composites.


Each chapter starts with a few lines of a ballad that outline the bare bones of the story, as sung by Zhang Kou, a blind minstrel.

The main text follows individual characters: how they became involved with the uprising, and their relationships with their families, neighbours and each other. There are two main timelines, though it isn't always immediately obvious when some sections are set, which I found irritating. Another annoyance was a few passages that suddenly switched to first-person, in a somewhat jarring way.

The main characters are Gao Yang who has a blind daughter and newborn son, and Gao Ma, a younger (and single) man, along with Jinju and her mother, Fourth Aunt Fang.


Because it is describing a political injustice with devastating consequences, along with corrupt officials inclined to torture those beneath them, it is painfully graphic a lot of the time. The brutality of family and neighbours is almost as bad. Such incidents need to be documented, but it's hard to read, at times.

At first, the explicitness is more subtle, conjuring poverty in more subtle ways. For example, instead of saying that Gao Yang is too poor to buy new shoes, it says "Baked earth burned the soles of his feet; the intense heat made his eyes water. With the sun beating down on his bare back, he scraped caked-on dirt from his chest."

The visceral descriptions of pain, flesh and bodily fluids that follow are relentless, although they are counterbalanced with poetic descriptions of plants, birds, and landscapes. At times, the link is explicit, as when one captive "took a last look at the poplar tree where he had been [agonisingly] shackled, and actually felt a tinge of nostalgia." Another time, colourful parakeets are bloodily slaughtered, "clouds of living colour that whirled above... until, wing-weary, they fell like stones, thudding like heavy rain drops".


Despite all the blood, pus and urine, tears are probably more important, especially the desperate desire not to shed them (and to deny it when doing so). A typical refrain is "Gao Yang's eyes were awash with tears. 'I'm not crying', he reassured himself".

There are also certain plants and crops that are mentioned in ways that makes me think they contain additional associations that I am unaware of, principally indigo, jute and corn. (The garlic is more obvious.)

It is all so painfully real, a fleeting mention of ghosts - as if they are entirely factual entities - comes as an anachronistic shock.

Of course, the main theme is about the incompetence and corruption of government, and how it is the peasant farmers who suffer. Standing up for what is right is very dangerous. I should probably state that Mo Yan is a pen name that means "don't speak" in Chinese.


The ending was incomplete for many characters (which I don't mind), but the final scene felt forced and clichéd.


* "Stars shone brightly in the deep, dark, downy-soft canopy of heaven, beneath which cornstalks, straining to grow tall, stretched and rustled."

* "The two strings sing out with a muffled scratchiness slowly rounding out to crisp, mellow notes that tightened around his listeners' eager hearts."

* "I am lying in the cornfields gazing at clouds being carved up by sharp-edged leaves above me... White sap beads up and dangles from downy filaments, reluctant to fall earthward, like the tears on her lashes."

* "Her feelings for her brother matched her feel for his game leg: pity on occasion, disgust the rest of the time. Pity and disgust, an emotional conflict that entangled her."

* A neglected cornfield "protested uneasily in the breeze: withered tassels and stalks retaining barely a trace of moisture no longer enjoyed the resiliancy of their youth, when they had been bent before the wind, their emerald leaves fluttering gracefully like ribbons of satin with each gust to form cool green waves; just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes, for now the wind made the stalks shudder as they stood tall and rigid, their once graceful movements just a memory."

* In a society where you're told what to believe, lack of direction is troubling: "not knowing what thoughts she should force into the emptiness of her mind".

* In prison, "benches painted an unknowable colour".

* "The dew-laden silkworm droppings falling on his legs seemed to him to be the excrement of heavenly constellations."

* When desperately thirsty and finally getting water, "he heard the crackling sounds of bone-dry organs being irrigated."

* "crinkled skin - a face that looked lie a soybean soaked in water, then set out to dry."

* "He could scarcely believe that in the space of twenty-four hours a vigorous man like him had been turned into a worthless, panting shell of a human being."

* In court, he "understood the presiding judge's words but little of his meaning... he sensed vaguely that the events being chronicled had little to do with him" - although of course the did (allegedly).
Profile Image for Kevin.
463 reviews67 followers
December 10, 2022
"She smacked him on the rear. "How am I supposed to stick a needle in something this tight?" What more could I ask of life? An aristocratic woman like this doesn't even care how dirty I am. She smacked my grimy ass with her clean hand! I could die here and now with no regrets." (pg. 167)

Irréversible is a fantastic 2002 French film. Have you seen it? It is stylistic and artful, exquisitely scripted and beautifully composed. The first time I watched it I was awestruck. To this day it remains one of my all time favorite films... It is also unflinchingly brutal. I have never watched it a second time, I have no desire to. That is how I feel about The Garlic Ballads.

Mo Yan has taken the genre of historical fiction to a whole new level. This is truly an art form in which he has few equals. His portrayal of Chinese peasant life in the 20th century reads like a 5th century Greek tragedy. It is hard for me to fathom that such archaic social structures were still functional while I was on the other side of the world wearing parachute pants and listening to Duran Duran.

I absolutely LOVED this novel and I will absolutely NEVER read it again.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews319 followers
December 27, 2015
Probably not the most prudent holiday-read selection, Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads was a relentlessly bleak look at oppression during the Deng Xiaoping era. The story of a quashed revolt by garlic farmers against the Communist regime in the mid '80s was heavy on atmospherics (the redolence of the garlic glut, and ensuing horrifics of post-riot prison life seeped in my pores) but lacking in subtlety and whimsy that made the similarly themed Shifu, You'll Do Anything For a Laugh (a collection of Mo Yan stories I read previous to this) an enjoyable read. It's an important, occasionally jaw-dropping novel, but (despite Mo's best efforts) the non-stop brutality numbed me insensate, rather than make me feel for the protagonists' plights.
Profile Image for Sandra Deaconu.
654 reviews96 followers
September 1, 2021
Cine ar fi crezut că îmi va plăcea atât de mult o carte despre usturoi?! Baza romanului o constituie un fapt real: revolta țăranilor din nordul Chinei, care a avut loc în anii '80, după ce guvernul a refuzat să le cumpere usturoiul, așa cum au avut înțelegerea. Rămași fără sursă de venit și umiliți, aceștia au distrus clădirea guvernului și au protestat cu violență, dar faptele lor nu au rămas nepedepsite. Romanul urmărește mai multe personaje, dar își concentrează atenția asupra doi bărbați și viețile lor înainte și după această revoltă.

O poveste densă, densă în evenimente, personaje și trăiri, dar fără a se simți aglomerată. Conține multe scene violente, pe care nu mi-a fost ușor să le parcurg. Eu nu mă poticnesc ușor la astfel de descrieri, dar sunt incredibil de dure și realiste.

Raportat la autorii noștri clasici, aș spune că Mo Yan este un amestec de Liviu Rebreanu, Zaharia Stancu și Eugen Barbu, Baladele usturoiului din Paradis fiind un roman complex despre corupție, nedreptate, sărăcie, diferențele dintre viața la sat și cea la oraș și aspirațiile celor care locuiesc acolo, despre dragoste, familie și compasiune. E uluitor cum un simplu gest, ca punerea unei frunze peste o rană sau împărțirea unui fir amărât de usturoi, poate stârni atâta emoție într-o lume care nici nu își mai aduce aminte cum e să dai ceva, ci doar să iei de la cei mai mici decât tine!

,,O fugi călugărul, dar templul rămâne tot pe loc."

,,Să faci revoluție nu înseamnă să acționezi în grabă,
Ci să acționezi încet, cu grijă, pas cu pas."

,,Dacă tuturor ne-ar fi bine, atunci răul cui ar mai rămâne?"

,,Când Cel de Sus i-a făcut pe oameni, a lucrat cu materiale diferite."

,,Când se fac mari șobolanii, până și pisicile se tem de ei!"
Profile Image for Dagio_maya .
886 reviews251 followers
July 24, 2018
“Prestate ascolto, compaesani!
Zhang Kou racconterà del paradiso in terra
Migliaia di ettari di terreno fertile
Acque fresche che scorrono gorgogliando
Patria di tanti uomini belli e di belle donne
Dove cresce un aglio famoso in tutto il mondo”

Canzone eseguita dal cieco Zhang Kou del distretto di Tiantang, il Paradiso.

Come le collane d’aglio intrecciato decorano le case dei contadini di questa provincia cinese, così le canzoni del cieco Zhang Kou fanno da cornice a questa storia che s’ispira a fatti realmente accaduti nel 1987.
E’ con amara ironia che Mo Yan inventa questo distretto chiamandolo Tiantang, ossia Paradiso.
Una terra per natura ricca e fertile non esonera la fatica ed il sudore che il lavori nei campi richiede.
Mao è alle spalle e il Partito guidato da Deng Xiaoping vuole portare la Cina ad un socialismo che sia competitivo nell’economia di mercato.
Il momento di transizione genera, però, confusione: i funzionari di provincia si sentono liberi di agire per il proprio tornaconto e mentre si aziona la macchina del social-capitalismo i contadini rimangono schiacciati dagli spietati ingranaggi.
Le direttive obbligano la coltivazione esclusiva dell’aglio ma quando questo rimarrà sui carretti a marcire partirà una dura protesta nella quale i protagonisti principali, Gao Yang e Gao Ma, rimarranno, loro malgrado invischiati.
Gao Yang non è un temerario: sopporta senza il coraggio di ribellarsi.
Gao Ma, invece, è mosso da una rabbia diversa: parallela e intrecciata, infatti, c’è la tormentata e dolorosa storia d’amore con la giovane Jinju che per interessi economici è stata promessa dalla famiglia ad un vecchio.
La rabbia si trasforma in odio. L’ingiustizia personale per l’amore negato si tramuta in disprezzo verso la classe corrotta dei funzionari.
Una Cina strattonata da spinte verso la modernità e, allo stesso tempo, frenata dalle arcaiche abitudini.
In mezzo avidità e corruzione.
Una storia colorata nei paesaggi e nelle piume di pappagalli malauguranti.
Una storia impregnata dalla puzza di sangue e di aglio.

"L’aglio di tutta la campagna dei dintorni si raccoglieva nel capoluogo del distretto, il raccolto era stato davvero buono. Il sole si mostrava a metà, era cosí rosso che sembrava cinto da un alone nero. Quando salí un altro po’, fu avvolto da una calotta di nuvole bianche che si tinse di rosa nella metà inferiore. Quattro binari brillanti correvano da est a ovest. Un treno verde arrivò da occidente con un pennacchio di fumo bianco e fischiando da far vibrare il cielo. I finestrini passarono a gran velocità, ai vetri erano incollati visi di gente ben pasciuta.”
Profile Image for Malacorda.
499 reviews313 followers
August 9, 2017
Scoperto per caso su anobii, me lo ritrovo sullo scaffale mentre curioso in libreria a Castelnuovo e non me lo faccio scappare. Il buon profumo di carta delle pagine fa da contrasto all'odore di aglio del titolo.

Secondo libro che leggo di un autore cinese nel giro di poco tempo e che si ricollega direttamente con il primo, letto poche settimane fa: se nel libro di Rong l'ottusità del regime è la causa della distruzione e desertificazione della prateria mongola, qui la stessa ottusità causa lo sfacelo di un villaggio di contadini i quali sono stati indotti a concentrare tutta la produzione su una sola coltura - l'aglio, appunto - e a causa di questo si ritrovano in miseria e in carestia.

L'ambientazione è dunque la Cina rurale degli anni ottanta, tra quei contadini che Rong, nel libro di cui sopra, disprezza un po': qui i contadini non sono rappresentati come dei tonti, ma ingenui certamente sì, quell'ingenuità che deriva dalla povertà, dall'ignoranza e dall'attaccamento alle antiche tradizioni. Siamo nella provincia dello Shandong, in un distretto denominato Tiantang, "paradiso", un nome paradossale che certamente vuole essere, se non proprio ironico, per lo meno elemento di contrasto per sottolineare la disastrata realtà vissuta dai suoi abitanti (la cosa non è per nulla surreale se si considerano i nomi ridicoli di tanti villaggetti e palazzine in certe squallide e orribili periferie anche qui da noi). Il luogo è in effetti un vero paradiso dal punto di vista delle lussureggianti flora e fauna: gelsi, salici, sorghi, sofore, dature, grandi fiori e frutti di ogni colore e profumo e sapore, campi di grano sempre maturo profumato e ondeggiante, puledri dal manto setoso e profumato che si spostano liberi per la campagna e osservano le miserie degli uomini con aria in parte interrogativa e in parte impietosita. E oltre al puledro che compare ovunque e poi riparte al galoppo, ci sono pappagalli dai mille colori, e un leopardo che spunta tra la canapa dagli steli gialli e verdi. Sembra di essere in un dipinto del buon vecchio Ligabue, ci sono gli stessi colori, le stesse pennellate forti e lo stesso spirito naif. Ma le similitudini con il paradiso finiscono qui, perché le vicende narrate sono invece infernali: si racconta in parallelo la storia di Gao Yang che viene arrestato per aver preso parte ad una sommossa, e quella di Gao Ma innamorato di Jinju ma in questo ostacolato in tutti i modi dalla famiglia di lei. Le due storie sono abilmente intrecciate perché coinvolgono gli stessi luoghi, stessi personaggi e lo stesso di lasso di tempo.

Personaggio emblematico e fondamentale è il cantore cieco Zhang Kou che all'inizio di ogni capitolo, come un menestrello, con il suo violino a tre corde, descrive il distretto di Tiantang, introduce gli eventi terribili che verranno narrati, incita i contadini alla rivolta contro l'ingiustizia. Mi ha ricordato molto da vicino il cantore Tighritz che ne "Il viaggiatore notturno" di Maggiani, in cambio dell'ospitalità, ogni sera intrattiene i suoi ascoltatori facendo un riassunto della giornata trascorsa - solo che là nel deserto non succede quasi niente, invece qui nel "paradiso" ne succedono di tutti i colori: rivolte, arresti, fughe, torture, incidenti, suicidi, omicidi e chi più ne ha più ne metta.

La storia è brutale e la scrittura dura, cruda e vagamente disarticolata, l'olfatto ha qui la stessa importanza della vista. Descrizioni di odori e profumi sono altrettante quanto quelle visive.

Il racconto è colmo di dettagli e bei paesaggi ma la poesia viene naturalmente soffocata dalle dure esperienze cui sono sottoposti i cinque sensi del lettore. A fare da contraltare a questa durezza, c'è la leggerezza con cui sono descritte torture e sofferenze patite dai personaggi, leggerezza che vuole esprimere l'ignoranza e ingenuità dei contadini, però tutto sommato finisce per tenere il lettore un po' a distanza. A fare da contraltare c'è anche una certa lentezza: la narrazione delle due storie in parallelo ha un incedere esageratamente lento nella prima metà del libro, colmo di dettagli tra i quali è impossibile distinguere quelli importanti ai fini della storia, e talvolta assume una dimensione onirica che a mio avviso male si sposa con il realismo dei 5 sensi. Il realismo sensoriale rimane in ogni caso predominante durante tutto il libro. La ripetitività di determinate frasi ed espressioni è come il ripetersi di un ritornello, dubito proprio sia una svista o un'insistenza dello scrittore, vuole invece rendere la narrazione come un canto. Forse una certa ripetitività di eventi ed espressioni vuole anche essere un forma di ironia, ma in questo caso il messaggio ironico non mi è arrivato più di tanto. Ad esempio la ripetitività con cui Gao Yang ripete a sé stesso che non sta piangendo, ha solo del liquido negli occhi; oppure la frequenza con cui lo stesso Gao Yang, nel corso delle vicende narrate, finisce per essere costretto a bere la propria urina.

Devo osservare anche una qualche confusione con i nomi di persone - non so se colpa dell'autore o della traduzione, ma non agevola certo la scorrevolezza della lettura: il padre di Jinju, a pag. 34 e a pag. 150 si chiama Fang Yunqiu, ma nelle pagine precedenti alla 34 e successive alla 150 si chiama Fang Sishu. Forse questa cosa ha una spiegazione che io non ho colto.

Il tema non è tanto, o comunque non soltanto, il funzionamento del regime comunista nelle campagne della Cina degli anni '80, con le sue torture, la sua crudeltà e la sua ottusità. Io direi che più in generale c'è il tema della povertà, e il rapporto della povera gente con i superiori: siano essi nobili (ai tempi dell'impero) o funzionari di partito (dalla rivoluzione in poi), il povero insiste nel crederli migliori di lui, crede che nella vita si siano sistemati meglio perché più capaci e più meritevoli, e così da un regime all'altro la sostanza resta sempre la stessa. L'autore, se da un lato esprime disprezzo per i piccoli funzionari di provincia, dall'altro lascia comunque trapelare fiducia per il regime in generale. Un po' come in Russia ai tempi dello Zar, il grande padre è sempre buono: il cattivo è il piccolo padre, il signore locale.

Quattro stelle o tre? In realtà sarebbero tre stelle e mezza, o forse tre e tre quarti, c'è un qualcosa nella narrazione che non mi convince del tutto; bisogna comunque riconoscere che la scrittura è davvero impeccabile, e chissà quanto si perde nella traduzione. Cosa non mi convince? Lo scontrarsi di un lato onirico con un lato estremamente realistico? La durezza del racconto che colpisce come uno schiaffo i cinque sensi del lettore? La lentezza del racconto? I continui flash-back e flash-forward che ricompongono un anno di eventi come un puzzle? Tutti questi non sono difetti, anzi sono elementi che ho apprezzato. Forse quel che non mi convince è il mix di tali elementi, è la ricetta: l'ho apprezzata, ma semplicemente non è tra le mie preferite. Forse quel che non convince è anche la chiusura di certe scene: dopo avere picchiato a morte Gao Ma lo fanno rinvenire con una medicina miracolosa in una scenetta quasi da televendita; oppure dopo una grave tragedia lo stesso Gao Ma che si mette ad inseguire ed ammazzare i pappagalli…

Lettura comunque consigliata - tranne che ai lettori schizzinosi o estremamente sensibili - poi come sempre ognuno ne può ricavare qualcosa di diverso.
Profile Image for banh ran zon.
88 reviews34 followers
August 2, 2018
Truyện này mà dựng thành phim thì mình không xem, tình tiết khá nặng nề, chỉ khi nó được viết bởi Mạc Ngôn thì mới đọc tiếp được. Lối văn siêu thực của ông này mà tả những cái bẩn thỉu thì thôi rồi ... Cảm xúc do tác giả mang lại rất mạnh, nhiều khi muốn sởn da gà. Cái màu này, cái không khí trong truyện này chính xác là những cái trong phim Trung Quốc và Việt Nam về nông thôn mà hồi bé mình hay xem, nhất là những cái oi bức, bí bách. Xem mà ám ảnh. Những cái đặc trưng đấy còn được nhân lên, đậm đặc hơn dưới ngòi bút đỉnh cao của Mạc Ngôn. Cảm giác như toàn cảnh việt nam cũng hiện rõ mồn một trước mắt. Đúng là cây bút đại tài. Chưa bao giờ đọc tác giả nào mà có khả năng tái hiện xuất sắc đến như vậy. Mặc dù khó đọc nhưng thâm ý sâu xa mà ông muốn hướng tới làm mình thấy đã lắm nên muốn đọc hết. Chửi cái gì đúng cái ý, đọc câu nào cũng chỉ muốn vỗ đùi đánh đét một cái "Chửi đúng lắm, chửi đã lắm." Mình thương người nông dân trong này nhưng nghĩ lại hiện thực cuộc sống của mình cũng hơn đéo gì, cũng thế cả. Uất ức lắm mà ngày ngày nó vẫn cứ diễn ra. Nhận định Việt Nam là Trung Quốc thu nhỏ quả không sai.
Profile Image for Ana.
805 reviews588 followers
April 8, 2014
update: i just found out that The Garlic Ballads was written in 35 days.

.... what?

this is probably one of his toughest books, with scenes that make you both afraid and disgusted, with characters that have no humanity in them and you're still forced to acknowledge that yes! indeed! they are your kin! there are bad things in this world, and then there are horrors, and the only creators of horror are us.

i feel like giving mo yan a hug. if his own experience inspired these gruesome stories... the man needs a hug.
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
456 reviews36 followers
March 6, 2022
Repulsive and fascinating, Kafkaesque and nightmarish, satirical and deadly serious, horribly sexist and pitiable. Lots of adjectives to describe a book I can't say I liked or enjoyed in the least, and I very nearly didn't finish it. I ended up sympathizing with the villagers struggling under insane local party management, but I'm also glad to get the savagery of book behind me.

The author was awarded a Nobel in literature in 2012 for his "hallucinatory realism."
Profile Image for Jessaka.
853 reviews100 followers
December 30, 2017
Mo Yan in this beautifully written poetic book has the ability to draw you in to the suffering of his characters. He knows how to touch one’s soul. I felt very disturbed by what I was reading, and while I loved this book, I knew that I could read no more about torture. I have yet to try another book written by him because they are all the same, maybe worse.

He deserved winning the Nobel Prize for his works, and that is about all I can say. I should have written that it was about farmers in China who were asked to grow garlic, but when they grew too much garlic, by no fault of their own and when it wouldn’t sell, they starved. They even ate coal, that non food item that we joke about giving kids for Christmas here in American if they were bad that year. I could tell you how much the garlic stank, how it may have covered up the smell of urine and feces, maybe even that of blood. But I won’t, instead I will tell you that his prose is the best that I have ever read.

“A sudden cloud formation of birds was swallowed up by the moon, and he was just as suddenly penned in by four walls—the demons’ pen.”

“They say officials love to serve the people, so why do they treat the common folk as enemies? Heavy taxes and under-the-table levies, like ravenous beasts, force the farmers to head for the hills. The common folk have a bellyful of grievances, but they dare not let them out. For the moment they open their mouths, electric prods close them fast.”

“The moonbeam did reach them—what was dancing on the leaves around them if not moonlight? If that wasn’t moonlight shimmering on the crickets’ wings like slivers of glass, what was it? Who would deny that the warm scent of moonlight was mixed with the cold odor of garlic?

Profile Image for Roger DeBlanck.
Author 6 books116 followers
November 5, 2016
Mo Yan is an extraordinary writer and The Garlic Ballads is an impressive novel of politicized art. Banned in China after the massacre in Tiananmen, the book exposes the injustice and indignity of the communist state while also confronting the dogged misguidance of traditionalist belief systems, such as arranged marriages. The narrative focuses primarily on the struggles of two families, those of garlic farmers Gao Yang and Fang Yunqui. The tragedies that befall them interweave back and forth across the duration of several events from the harvesting of the garlic crops to the storming of a government compound. Mo Yan skillfully unravels his story in bits and pieces that show each family’s degree of suffering, misfortune, and infighting. This nonlinear technique of storytelling can be a challenge due to the complexity of having events revealed in fragments, but it does not hinder one’s investment in the narrative stream. Every chapter is comprised of multiple scenes, each of which is riveting and packed with heartfelt emotion. The horrors and sadness keep you grounded with compassion for the plight of the characters. Mo Yan makes all this possible with his lovely, luminous prose, the product of a great translator. He has a gift of language that transcends poetics. His observations produce enchanting imagery and descriptions that are altogether wondrous. Only the works of Morrison and McCarthy come to my mind as capturing landscapes and settings with quite as much splendor as experienced in Mo Yan’s novel.
Profile Image for Julie G .
858 reviews2,632 followers
October 3, 2012
If you are a fan of Toni Morrison or Isabel Allende, I can almost guarantee you will like this book. This is literature, great literature, and it's coming out of China. And, Mo Yan (his pen name) is not just a writer coming out of China, he's a great writer. A great writer shows you what you need to see, what you might have overlooked or refused to acknowledge. A great writer leans in to say to you, I'm showing you this, but I'm here. You're not alone. And, after he takes you through field after field of every bodily fluid that can be expressed from the human body, this great writer is there, in his stream-of-consciousness style, to show you how the light falls on the maple just as the sun sets over the next ridge. This is an extraordinary and powerful work of art.
Profile Image for Ivan.
357 reviews51 followers
November 15, 2017
Leggere Mo Yan è una sorpresa continua, uno stimolo a ricercare, leggere, comprendere la storia della Cina. L’era epica della lotta di liberazione, della costruzione del socialismo, e anche della rivoluzione culturale, appartiene ora al passato; un passato nobile, ma irrimediabilmente passato. Resta adesso la durezza del presente, in modo particolare se si appartiene alla classe contadina. La durezza del lavoro della terra, l’incertezza per il raccolto, l’aleatorietà dell’esistenza che può risolversi in una catastrofe per le famiglie, tutto viene aggravato, indurito, incattivito dal burocratismo, dalla supponenza, dall’arroganza e dall’incompetenza delle autorità locali, unitamente agli effetti dell’invadente economia di mercato. L’universo della piccola comunità di villaggio chiamata Tiangtan, il “Paradiso”, viene descritta vivacemente attraverso le storie di alcuni suoi abitanti, che in modo personale, in bene o in male vivono a loro modo il “disastro” di un raccolto troppo abbondante di aglio. In altri tempi sarebbe stata una benedizione, adesso è una catastrofe personale e collettiva. Il lirismo della descrizione incantata dei campi, dei boschi, dei fiumi, del vento, della luce, contrasta, fa a pugni con la sporcizia, con la grettezza, la sopraffazione, l’abuso, la violenza che emerge dal convivere sociale e familiare. Rutti, scoregge, piscio, liquami dei porcili fanno frequente apparizione nel vissuto quotidiano, ma non è questo a disturbare, a degradare, a sporcare le persone. È più l’abbrutimento morale, l’insensibilità, l’avidità, la durezza dei cuori, la distorsione ideologica che degradano le persone e le istituzioni. Il povero contadino Gao Yang arrestato per la rivolta contro le autorità corrotte, può così pisciarsi addosso dalla paura, può subire soprusi in carcere (bere la propria urina, ancora l’urina protagonista) ma rimane sempre un persona mite e pia, i suoi sentimenti sempre delicatamente umani mantengono incorrotta la sua dignità. Gao Ma, un altro protagonista della rivolta ma molto meno remissivo, nella sua fuga dalle guardie e dall’arresto finisce tra i liquami di un porcile e gli escrementi dei maiali. Mangia aglio e puzza d’aglio, ma è umanamente e moralmente un gigante. Innamorato di Jinju, promessa sposa di un matrimonio combinato tra le famiglie, affronta l’ira e le botte del padre e dei fratelli, fugge con lei in una fuga impossibile tra i campi di canapa, vengono riacciuffati in una stazione di autobus, ancora botte… Ma Jinju… Jinju, il bambino che le scalpita in grembo, la morde… Jinju… la sfortunata e disperata Jinju. Il cieco cantore di storie Zhang Kuo, con i brani delle sue canzoni, racconta e accompagna frammenti di rivolta contadina, una jacquerie non violenta (quasi) e impossibile. Sembra di leggere il vecchio Faulkner in questo spezzettamento di vita ed accadimenti. Un bel libro, davvero!
Profile Image for Rosanna .
416 reviews24 followers
March 17, 2018
E’ un libro orribilmente bello da leggere.
Faticoso da immaginare. Doloroso.
Sono dolorose l’immensa povertà, l’infinita e gratuita crudeltà contenute anche nell’amore raccontato. Mi sono ritrovata a pensare “Non piango…non sto piangendo”, frase ricorrente in cui è racchiusa la vita di uno dei protagonisti. La tenerezza fa fatica ad entrare nei loro cuori: ci sono rassegnazione, rabbia, ribellione, senso di perdita e sconfitta. Pesante e cocente sconfitta di colui che dovrebbe essere poi il vero vincitore della Storia cinese: il popolo. Popolo che ha ancora speranza, scapo d’aglio dopo scapo d’aglio, bruttura dopo bruttura, tortura dopo tortura, dovuta a quel sentimento umanissimo di migliorare le proprie condizioni di partenza, anche solo con la nascita di un figlio maschio.
Per inciso, anni fa, questa speranza propulsiva del popolo cinese, del singolo componente di esso, la percepii io stessa e la ammirai e mi basterà tornare solo un’altra volta per capire definitivamente come siamo fatti noi Uomini.
La forza e la rassegnazione, dunque, sono in questo libro a profusione! e in più presente e passato altalenanti tra le storie dei singoli. E’ scrittura predestinata alla parte finale del libro stesso, alla difesa accorata del padre da parte di un figlio, del nuovo a favore del vecchio, dell’utopia contro l’ideologia, del sogno contro la realtà. Tutto è teso al superamento di ciò stesso, con un finale demagogico di difesa del sistema, dove gli individui sono inutili corollari. Anche le canzoni del cieco Zhong Kou sulla libertà che non ci sarà mai, anche le sue domande senza risposta, anche la giustizia massacrata da burocratismo e corruzione. Quanto può essere attuale, qui ed ora, questo ‘cantare’?
E su tutto si spande un odore di aglio, dapprima buono come buona è la speranza, poi cattivo come è cattivo il sangue che scorre, già marcio come le parole.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,384 reviews292 followers
September 1, 2022
I have come back to this book years later for reasons that I’m not sure I can explain other than I hated not being able to understand what the point was of this book years ago. I found that the book which was originally written in Chinese in 1988 had been translated and created in audible and e-book in about 2008. Audible books make just about anything doable for me.

The fact that this book was written in the year before the demonstrations and violence in Tiananmen Square cannot be a coincidence since the story is about the uprising of Chinese villagers who predominantly grow garlic against their village administration Who represent the communist party locally. It is sad that this book was banned in China and the fact that it portrays life rather negatively can be simply seen as anti-Chinese propaganda. Thus the book is alive and well in the US where such propaganda is welcomed. However it is also clear that things are often not well in China in real life.

This book is so predominantly about the effort of common people to survive under some onerous circumstances. They raise garlic because that is what they are required to do by the government and then they cannot sell it quite often because of a confluence of events. Eventually some of them storm the local administrative offices. This is interesting in the light of the fact of the January 6 riot that encompass the US Capitol. Some of the leaders are arrested and put in jail and some of the book takes place in that venue. So we have the story of people who struggle in life, rise up against the government, are jailed. There is also the sub text of a love affair set against arranged marriages and births where sons are preferred. These are all actual issues in China of course which have been undergoing some change. The book recognizes that formal governmental change in policy regarding these and other issues does not mean immediate acceptance of the change at the level of the common people. This is an interesting situation where the people feel oppressed by the government while at the same time the government is attempting to reform basic policies progressively. Life is complicated!

But the amazing thing is that I have now finished this book. But it would be hard to say that this book is not quite brutal from beginning to end.

I am not going to finish this book because the violence and inhumanity seems never ending. I have read the first sixty pages filled with brutality. Then I randomly skipped to pages further into the book to see if there was any abatement of the grossness and found that there seemed not to be. Then I went to read some reviews by other GR people.

Here are several review segments:

(one star) This book wasn't for me. I can usually slog through, but really had a hard time. Other reviews seem to indicate that it is worth reading, so not necessarily discouraging others, but at times it seemed jerky and at others a bit too vivid - in a way that I found actually distracted and detracted from the storyline. One could argue that this is his style and is actually integral to the story but regardless, it didn't work for me here.
. . .
(three stars) While I do not doubt Mo's portrayal of the brutality and corruption of government officials, I found the extreme violence and inhumanity within and between peasant families (severe beatings and torture) a bit hard to believe. Instead, I got the sense that many incidents in the novel were exaggerated primarily for their shock value.
. . .
(five stars) Stark story of life under a corrupt Communist government. Well written right to the end. I understand why the Chinese banned it after Tiananmen Square. Some powerful imagery and strong political messages here in the middle of a love story. Oh, and it won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.
. . .
(five stars) The Garlic Ballads is my first encounter with the work of Mo Yan, laureate of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. My first reactions are that he is an extraordinary writer and that this novel is an impressive piece of politicized art. Banned in China after the massacre in Tiananmen, The Garlic Ballads exposes the injustice and indignity of the communist state while also confronting the dogged misguidance of traditionalist belief systems regarding arranged marriages. The narrative focuses primarily on the struggles of two families, those of garlic farmers Gao Yang and Fang Yunqui. The tragedies that befall them interweave back and forth across the duration of several events from the harvesting of the garlic crops to the storming of a government compound. Mo Yan skillfully unravels his story in bits and pieces that show each family’s degree of suffering, misfortune, and infighting.
. . .
(five stars) I just finished, and I think I will need to do some pondering, but my initial impressions of this book centers on a conflict between my understanding of China and the picture I got from this book. If Mr. Mo isn't considered a dissident by the Chinese government, then my understanding of what constitutes a "repressive" regime is way off base. This book is not at all flattering to government officials as it tells of corruption, oppression of peasants and the poorest of the poor, official injustice and personal mercy, petty disputes, greed and families in turmoil.

I give these quotes in some length because this book and author have received considerable acclaim. It is clearly controversial as it presents life in communist China in the mid 1980s. As a person who is often a social critic from a progressive/left point of view, I do not believe my dislike of the presentation resulted from a negative evaluation of the accuracy of the presentation. It simply seemed grim to the extreme, beyond what I required to make the social and political points. I expected to like the book and to generally agree with it. Instead, I found it distasteful on my first attempt to read. I will put this book back on my shelf and can imagine looking at it again in the future.
Profile Image for Effie Saxioni.
544 reviews73 followers
October 28, 2021
Εντελώς πολιτικοποιημένο, βρωμοκοπάει σάπιο σκόρδο,βία,ούρα, διαφθορά, και κατάχρηση εξουσίας. Είναι ξυπόλυτο και γεμάτο λάσπη, το κατατρώνε οι ψείρες,ελπίζει σε ψίχουλα δικαιοσύνης αλλά είναι πολύ φτωχό για την καρπωθεί.
-Φτάνει η αγνή αγάπη για να νικήσει όλα αυτά;

Profile Image for Gorkem.
137 reviews88 followers
January 28, 2017
Bu kitaba da güle güle demek cidden çok zor. Tüm karakterler şu an buralarda bir yerlerde kokularıyla konuşmalarıyla dolanıyor. Her ne kadar çok rahatsız edici olan kısımlar olsa da gene bir Mo Yan etkisi.
Profile Image for Linda.
331 reviews30 followers
January 9, 2014
The farmers of Paradise County are encouraged by the Government to plant garlic. When the warehouses fill up and the taxes rise, the garlic begins to decompose, causing the farmers to starve. Mo Yan earned the Nobel Prize in literature 2012. The Garlic Ballads is loosely based on the true story of a revolt, taking place in 1987, against the Chinese government. The book was banned due to it's regime criticism, and I find it strange that Mo Yan has received critic as to being too vague in his claims. I think his anti government opinions are rather evident in this book.

I got close to Gao Yang and Gao Ma, both of which were carefully crafted. However, I didn't understand all of the characters, especially the oldest Fang brother. There was something with him that wasn't consistent and that made me confused. What bothered me even more was the fact that is wasn't only the regime that was unfair and ruthless, the fellow prisoners were as cruel. A man's life wasn't worth anything. Perhaps, if told all your life that it's the truth, one begins to behave that way.

The stench of garlic is everywhere and symbolizes the boiling unhappiness that eventually turns to hatred. I have never read a book with that much filth, urine, excrement and vomit, serving as a big contrast to the fractions of love and kindness. The expressive prose is rare and drags you into the story. You can feel everything with your own senses. You can smell the rotting garlic, sometimes too much. You can feel the crawling lice from the mattress, always too much. But you can also feel the beautiful things, the determinism of the farmers having enough, the beautiful relationship between the young couple, the green, resplendent, living and breathing crop fields, illuminated by the moon. Few authors has the ability to alternate their writing in this way, What I couldn't figure out was what the little foal represents. That questions, Mo Yan didn't answer when visiting Sweden to receive his earned Nobel Prize. Hope, perhaps. Or the tiny bit of freedom left, the very souls of the characters.

My review

Profile Image for Anima.
432 reviews53 followers
August 20, 2019
"As an initial probe, he picked up a flowering cactus in a shallow red-and-pink vase and flung it at a window whose glass was polished until it shone. It parted without a murmur, allowing the vase and its contents to pass slowly through. He ran to the window in time to see the red-and-pink vase, the green cactus, and shards of window glass dance and skitter across the concrete ground. The vase broke, the detached petals scattered in all directions. A gratifying sight. "
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,648 reviews124 followers
January 24, 2022

A very interesting story about life in a Chinese village around the time of the cultural revolution.

It runs the gamut of emotions from tender love to gross incidents.

Managing the names were difficult for me at times.
Profile Image for Alta.
Author 7 books147 followers
April 2, 2013
The Garlic Ballads is less bloody than Red Sorghum, but very violent, nonetheless. To begin with, the novel has an epigraph from none other than Stalin, which is—ironically—an admonishment to novelists who try to “distance themselves from politics.” My personal guess is that Mo Yan uses the famous name as a password in order to get his “ballad”—which criticizes corrupt Chinese officials and policemen—past the censors.

This novel too has a complicated structure: each chapter is preceded by a quote from a ballad by Zhang Kou, Paradise County’s blind minstrel, in which are summarized the chapter’s events. It is from one of these summaries that we find out that the events take place in 1987 (the book, published in 1988, was, according to some accounts, banned after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989). Like Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads is built around an element that infuses the entire novel: here it’s garlic (in all its states, fresh and rotten, incorporated in dishes and drinks). But don’t get ready for a fiesta of the senses: by the end of the novel, after dozens of pages of putrefied garlic, and men who belch after eating too much of it, you don’t want to hear of anything garlicky for a while!

The story begins with the arrest of several people accused of having participated in a mob attack against the County offices—Gao Jinjiao, Gao Ma, Fourth Aunt Fang, Gao Yang—and then, like Red Sorghum, moves back in time, and then forward again. I lost count of how many times Gao Yang is forced to drink his own urine (whether in school or in his prison cell), and how many times Jinju (Fourth Aunt Fang’s daughter), in love with Gao Ma in spite of her parents’ wish for her to marry someone else, is savagely beaten by her parents and brothers.

A very original narrative technique is that in the next-to-last chapter the excerpt from the ballad sung by Zhang Kou is followed by an authorial intervention: “At this point in Zhang Kou’s ballad a ferocious policeman jumped to his feet and cursed. . . . He kicked Zhang Kou in the mouth, cutting off the final note. . . .” Yet, it is only in the last chapter that the minstrel appears in the story itself, and we are told that he too was briefly incarcerated, released, and then murdered on a sidewalk, his mouth crammed full with sticky mud. Undoubtedly, Mo Yan has conceived the slain minstrel as a stand-in for the Artist who tells the truth—thus (in his vision!) for himself. The technique of the ballad as a meta-story that parallels (or mirrors) the thread of the novel, and the characters’ speech peppered with proverbs and “peasant wisdom” remind me of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, whose novels display the same tension between an old way of life and a society built on communist bureaucracy.
Profile Image for Nguyễn Quang Vũ.
131 reviews174 followers
June 9, 2016
Vẫn là phong cách đúng chất Mạc Ngôn, giản dị mà dữ dội. Ở văn chương của ông, người ta luôn thấy hai khía cạnh đấy đan xen nhau, cứ như là một. Mình chưa bao giờ phải khó nhọc để đọc một tác phẩm của Mạc Ngôn cả, bất luận dung lượng của nó là năm bảy trăm trang hay chỉ dưới một trăm trang.

Nếu như "Đàn hương hình" là cái dữ dội đau đớn len lỏi trong từng thớ thịt thì "Cây tỏi nổi giận" là cái đau đớn trong sự bất lực của những người nông dân khi phải đương đầu với tầng lớp quan lại mới, quan liêu và hiểm ác. Trong "Cây tỏi nổi giận" không hề có sự cả nể hay rụt rè. Mạc Ngôn biết cách chọc thẳng vào sự thật một cách không khoan nhượng, lột tả rõ nét tình trạng hủ lậu kém phát triển ở nông thôn Trung Quốc sau thảm họa đại cách mạng văn hóa. Không hiểu sao nó vẫn được xuất bản ở Trung Quốc bình thường mà hiện giờ thì lại bị hạn chế xuất bản ở Việt Nam (hình như thế, vì lâu rồi không có quyển nào của Mạc Ngôn được tái bản nữa).

"Cây tỏi nổi giận", tựa gốc là "Bài ca củ tỏi Thiên Đuờng", là câu chuyện về những người nông dân ở huyện Thiên Đường ồ ạt trồng tỏi theo khuyến cáo của nhà nước. Tỏi được mùa lớn, nhưng người nông dân thì ăn quả đắng vì tệ quan liêu, tham nhũng của cán bộ huyện và rất nhiều loại lệ phí kỳ dị đánh vào củ tỏi. Tỏi bị ế, nông dân bỏ vốn nhưng lỗ thảm hại. Vậy là bà con kéo nhau lên tận ủy ban huyện đập phá trụ sở ủy ban. Đan xen với cuộc nổi loạn của bà con nông dân huyện Thiên Đường là cảnh khốn cùng của người nông dân Cao Mã và tình yêu đau xót của anh với Kim Cúc khi cố gắng vượt qua rào cản tư duy phong kiến của người dân quê lúc bấy giờ.

Điểm mình không thích nhất ở quyển này chính là phần "Bình luận của bản báo" và một số bài học rút ra từ "sự kiện ngồng tỏi Thiên Đường". Có lẽ phần này Mạc Ngôn trích dẫn để khôn khéo vượt qua rào cản kiểm duyệt. Một số nhà bình luận phương Tây đã cho rằng Mạc Ngôn được trao giải Nobel là không thể chấp nhận được vì giải Nobel không trao cho thể loại văn chương bị tù túng hoặc đại loại là phải dùng "mẹo" để được phát hành. Thế nào cũng được. Mình thích là được :D Vote 4 sao cho quyển này.
Profile Image for Ourania Topa.
115 reviews26 followers
July 30, 2020
Τι βαθμό δίνεις σε ένα βιβλίο που σε έκανε να υποφέρεις όσο το διάβαζες; Που δεν μπορούσες να διαβάσεις πάνω από 20 σελίδες χωρίς να γίνει το στ��μάχι σου κόμπος; Που η αθλιότητα, η δυστυχία και η αδικία που υφίστανται οι ήρωες, σου ήταν αδιανόητες ακόμα και ως μυθοπλασία;
Με απίστευτα σκληρό ρεαλισμό το μυθιστόρημα αυτό του νομπελίστα **ΜΟ ΓΙΑΝ** περιγράφει τη ζωή των απλών χωρικών που καλλιεργούν σκόρδο σε μια κινέζικη επαρχία τη δεκαετία του 80 (υπό Deng Xiaoping). Η υπερπροσπάθειά τους για αύξηση της παραγωγής, με σκοπό να βελτιώσουν κάπως τις ελεεινές συνθήκες διαβίωσης, οδηγεί στην υπερπαραγωγή σκόρδου. Αποτέλεσμα.... τα όνειρά τους ματαιώνονται με τον χειρότερο τρόπο ενώ η εξουσία χορεύει το χορό του παραλόγου, την ίδια στιγμή που ένας τυφλός και ανέστιος αοιδός τραγουδά τη μοίρα των σκορδοκαλλιεργητών (εξού και οι μπαλάντες του τίτλου)! Δεν είναι τυχαίο που το βιβλίο απαγορεύτηκε στην Κίνα...
Κατόπιν πολυήμερης σκέψης κατέληξα ότι η λογοτεχνικότητα αυτού του κειμένου έγκειται ακριβώς στη σκληρότητα του: με την αδυσώπητα λεπτομερή περιγραφή του ελεεινού βίου των αγροτών (σε συνδυασμό συχνά με ειδυλλιακές περιγραφές της φύσης που τους περιβάλλει) επιχειρεί να ωθήσει τον αναγνώστη στα όριά του και να δοκιμάσει τις αντοχές του. Είναι ένα επίτευγμα...
Profile Image for Barbara Williams.
90 reviews62 followers
June 28, 2013
Well, it took me since April to read this damn book, BUT I DID IT. I am so glad that The Garlic Ballads is out of my life. Why, you ask? Because this book is the equivalent of reading Les Miserables. Not to say that this book isn't good, but the story was depressing and for some reason it was set in 1980's but it felt like feudal China.

I know that many of my friends have stated that they will never read this book, so below I have a nice summary of Mo Yan's novel. Obviously this is a very shortened summary of a beautifully written novel. There are several spoilers, so if you have any interest of reading this at all, I would stay away from my review. Your interest will diminish.

As this story opens, we are introduced to our resident sad sack, the Charlie Brown of The Garlic Ballads, Gao Yang. He is called into town for some reason and is immediately beaten down by some officers. He is arrested for inciting a riot in which will take the whole novel to see unfold. He pees himself, because that's what everyone in this novel seems to do at one point or another. We find out he is a garlic farmer, due to the fact that after the revolution, the Communist government has assigned the peasants of Paradise Valley to plant garlic and nothing else.

Then we are introduced to Gao Ma (not to be confused with Gao Yang), or Romeo, of the garlic ballads. He has the hots for his neighbor, Jinju, or Juliet, who is betrothed to another man. One day he approaches Jinju and lets her use his Walkman and helps her with her chores. The quickest way to a woman's heart is letting her sit there while you do heavy labor for her apparently (wait not apparently... I'm on board with this idea) and they instantly fall in love. Gao Ma decides that it would be a great idea to tell Jinju's highly abusive parents that she is no longer a pawn in their dowry scheme. Naturally, Jinju's parents do not take to the news happily, and proceed to beat Gao Ma and Jinju nearly to death.

From then on, Jinju is beaten daily, for loving another man other than her future husband who she has never met. Crazy kids and their hormones! She and Gao Ma decide to run away together, start a new life in the big city. They are able to make it to the bus station, (but not before having sex along the way!) where they are caught by Deputy Yang, and distant relative of Jinju's family the Fangs. He lets Jinju's brothers beat Gao Ma nearly to death and get in a few kicks at Jinju.

The joke, however, is on the Fangs. Gao Ma and Jinju's brief sexual encounter results in a surprise pregnancy. The marriage contract becomes null and void, and the Fangs agree to give Gao Ma Jinju as long as he pays a sum. But, this proves to be difficult for Gao Ma. The Communist Government has a surplus of garlic, and will no longer purchase anymore until some of it sells (because that would be just too easy!)

At the same time, Gao Yang and Jinju's father travel several miles to sell their own crop. Of course, they are unable to sell any garlic. Naturally chaos ensues and Jinju's father is hit by a car and dies (BODY COUNT: 1.)

Back in Back in Paradice Valley, a pregnant Jinju decides that she can no longer live without Gao Ma, and thinking that he is arrested for inciting said riot that still hasn't been explained, hangs herself. (BODY COUNT: 3.)

In the flashback, Gao Ma and the rest of the garlic farmers (including Gao Yang and Jinju's mother) lead a riot, destroying government buildings, demanding that someone buy their garlic.

And thus, the novel comes fill circle, and the flashbacks connect to the present. The Gao Ma/Yang are arrested and tried, along with Jinju's mother. Years pass, and eventually Jinju's mother is released from prison. Jinju's brothers, being the assholes of the novel, decide to sell Jinju's ashes to the father of the man she was previously betrothed to, since that guy decided he couldn't live without Jinju, and thus jumps down a well and kills himself (BODY COUNT 4.) They want to combine the ashes of Jinju and this random guy, so they will be together forever in the afterlife.

Jinju's mother does not approve so she hangs herself (BODY COUNT: 5.)

When Gao Ma is informed that his lover's ashes were sold to another, he escapes from prison, knowing that he will be gunned down (BODY COUNT: 6.)


There are a lot of deep themes in this novel, like the failures of communist leaders and the clash of a feudal ways of life in a modern world. Violence also plays a major role, which is emphasized by Deputy Yang to the Fangs, "Under the new government you can't just beat your daughter, she is a person protected under the law." But then Deputy Yang proceeds to let them beat Jinju in front of him. I think Mo Yang is trying to say that communism or any government in general, when run by corrupt officials, just doesn't work.


Just let people be together that want to be together. Otherwise everyone will die.
Profile Image for Horia Bura.
318 reviews28 followers
May 26, 2022
Tough, intense, alert, dramatic and, at times, tragic, very well written, as well as Mo Yan`s other writings. A true story is translated into literature as only the Nobel Prize-winning Chinese writer knows how, drawing a living - and sometimes still unborn or even dead - world and believable and memorable characters. One of the best novels I've read in the last five years.
Profile Image for Yair Ben-Zvi.
317 reviews82 followers
June 27, 2014
Suffering. In a word, that is this book. With shades of Kafka's Trial and Castle, as well as Kozinski's The Painted Bird and Orwell's 1984, this book evidences suffering at nearly every conceivable level. Along with this Mo Yan has an incredible predilection for depicting the grotesque and disgusting side of the human bodily experience. Shit, blood, semen, spit, piss, sweat, every 'inelegant' bit of bodily output is given detailed mention here.

Taken together what does this mean for the story? As I read it I experienced one of the most unpleasant but efficacious stories of human sensuality (the grim and gritty side of it) coupled with human agony by way of soulless and bloodless bureaucracy and just plain person to person cruelty I've ever read. It's as if Orwell gave us the government, Kafka the bureaucracy and the all but mindless functionaries to man it, and Kozinski the minds of the people in and among all of it, all coalescing together to create something truly awful.

But Mo Yan's writing has an additional trait I'd feel remiss for not mentioning. Namely, this trait is his power of naturalistic description. The fields of millet and jute, the full and blood moon in the velvet sky overlooking the nearly endless sea of crop and grasses, it's all wonderfully described. And taken together with the absurd level of inhumanity Mo Had so skillfully describes the descriptions of nature (and fauna to a lesser extent) become something hauntingly evocative, like a run of film from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, nature's beautiful indifference to the goings on of humanity.

I feel as though up to this point I've only been talking around the story and not about the story itself, and there is a reason for that. Considering this is an early novel of Mo Yan's it's somewhat understandable but still baffling as to how badly paced this story is. It slogs something awful. Not quite as bad as an AB Yehoshua novel but in that league, certainly. Less than halfway through the book I checked my kindle to see how many pages in I was...and was straight flummoxed to see that the entire novel was only 280 some odd pages. Really, up to a certain point I just assume this was a 400 page novel, damn was I surprised.

As for the rating though, and whether or not this gets a recommendation, it's 'yes' certainly, but not without a handful of caveats. For one thing, this book is draining. The level of anguish and misery on display here is not for the faint of heart. It hits you hard initially and doesn't relent at all, save for a few instances of some of the darkest comedy you're liable to read outside of a Dennis Cooper novel. Another point, the story itself is so mired in its specific temporal and cultural context that anyone not well or even passably versed in recent Chinese history will be a bit lost, I know I was. This last point however I must admit did work in an way to the story's favor. As I discussed with a friend over drinks this novel had an incredible sense of the exotic and the near other worldly, something that reads like a postcard from the edge of either the very long ago or the very far flung in the future. It's a bizarre feeling and not easily replicated.

So, in summation, read this book. But gird yourself for the weight and terror of governmental oppression and the agony of human cruelty, stitched together by bureaucratic soullessness. There's a humanity in this work that allows it moments of transcendence. But this humanity is that of the corporeal, the dirty, the red hot magma like pulsing just beneath the surface of the beat down, the oppressed, and the weary.
Profile Image for Ettore1207.
387 reviews
August 3, 2017
Uno straziante affresco di un episodio, ispirato ad un fatto vero, narrato per mezzo di flashback. Si tratta della rivolta, e relativa repressione, di contadini avvenuta nella Cina post-comunista, dopo le riforme e l'adozione governativa di meccanismi ispirati al libero mercato. Alle soglie del III millennio, condizioni di vita e mentalità di quei popoli sono ancora medievali, e convivono con tecnologie avanzate come, ad esempio, i manganelli elettrici in dotazione alla polizia.
E' un libro molto bello, con uno stile semplice ed efficace. Ma le vicende sono davvero dure e crude. Troppo dure e troppo crude. Dolori, torture, avversità a profusione, non c'è spazio non dico per un sorriso, ma nemmeno per un attimo di quiete.
Ad un certo punto, mentre leggevo, mi sono segnato le parole chiave di ogni pagina. Eccone alcune: povertà, sporcizia, fame, fuga, paura, violenza, egoismo, carcere, pidocchi, fame, sete, morte, freddo, dolore, malattie, percosse, angherie, tortura, ingiustizia, sevizie, terrore, nausea, pianto, sangue, buio, pianto, fetore, fango, urina, pianto, sangue, prevaricazioni, vomito, falsità, rabbia, brutalità, impiccagione, putrefazione, seppellimento, tanfo, corruzione.
Non è adatto a chi cade falcilmente in depressione.
Profile Image for Outis.
305 reviews50 followers
August 22, 2019
Questo libro l'ho finito ormai il 12 luglio. Avrei dovuto recensirlo già da un pezzo ma questo mese ho avuto molto da fare, quindi cercherò di recuperare adesso.
Questo mio ritardo pazzesco ha anche un lato positivo: a distanza di tempo mi sento di dover aumentare il rating di questo libro da 4 a 5 stelline.
Era la mia prima esperienza con Mo Yan, addirittura la mia prima esperienza con uno scrittore cinese ed è andata benissimo.
Mo Yan racconta storie durissime, non ci risparmia descrizioni forti, perfino disgustose, ma senza voyeurismo e autocompiacimento. Allo stesso tempo, non mancano descrizioni naturali liriche e la scrittura, sempre elegante e raffinata, riesce a dare un respiro epico (anche grazie al cantore cieco) alle vicende raccontate.
Ho l'impressione che alcuni scrittori contemporanei, seppur dotati di una buona penna, non abbiano qualcosa da dire veramente. Non è assolutamente il caso di Mo Yan, per fortuna.

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