Is there something about Chinese fiction that's problematic for me? Of the four Chinese novels I've read (or gave up on for very good reasons) in the past few years, ironically only the one I read in a translation into Hebrew has been any good (Chronicle of a Blood Merchant)*. Of the English translations, I couldn't finish The Fat Years, The Dictionary of Maqiao was a slog most of the way through despite its clever structure, and now the fourth, The Garlic Ballads... I just finished Mo Yan's novel and am feeling distinctly underwhelmed.
I've been trying to finish The Garlic Ballads for weeks, actually. It's a bit like the situation I found myself in with The Fat Years - I wanted to keep reading out of sheer inertia. The Fat Years I gave up on the moment I lost a bit of momentum. I kept reading The Garlic Ballads because one thin aspect of the story seemed like it might develop further. It ultimately developed into a rather horrifying scene, but otherwise fully failed to move me.
If the eBook hadn't been returned to the library a few days ago, I would have been able to actually quote from the passages that highlighted much of what I didn't like about the book. But even without the book in front of me, I can clearly state that somewhere - either in the translation or while actually writing the novel - someone missed an important lesson on dialogue. The Garlic Ballads has a bizarre mash-up of flowery prose alongside extremely brash colloquial speech. It has nothing to do with certain characters speaking one way or another - the same character might give a very proper, stilted speech, and two pages later use slang that seems utterly out of place. Every translation from Chinese I've read - whether in Hebrew or in English - has had a very specific stiff feel to it, recognizable even across the different languages. This, coupled with the scant Chinese I know, leads me to be more lenient when it comes to translations from Chinese. But not this lenient. You lose me once the inconsistencies start.
I don't know why I didn't like The Garlic Ballads quite so much. It's not a horrible book, but I never felt like I connected with it: I didn't care about the characters, I didn't like the writing, and the plot kept feeling like some slippery ice-cube I was trying to grab inside a giant bath. I wasn't sure if Mo was winking at the readers, or at the government, or at the Western world, or what. But it felt like he was winking. Each chapter opens with a quote from the blind minstrel's "garlic ballads", where a lot of the political stuff gets jammed. It's generally a clever idea, having quotes from one of your characters framing the story (though the minstrel remains generally background until the very end), but... did it lead to anything? Did it enlighten me? Things happened, yes, and ideas were tossed around, but was there a plot? Was there character development? Was there anything?
So I end up feeling a bit like I did after The Fat Years. Namely, that Mo had a bunch of ideas, and decided to place them within a specific framework. Unlike the awful mess that was The Fat Years, The Garlic Ballads does a much better job of telling some kind of story (even if it's unclear what that story is). The gimmick here - the framing - is much more successful. The writing is also much better. But overall, I can't say that I enjoyed this book or took something significant from it. Even when reading the "difficult" scenes, I felt like an outsider who was uncomfortable, not like a character going through these events myself. I finished the book and just felt relieved to be done with it. I could now mark a V next to its title. Going through the motions... never a good indication when it comes to literature.
* This is mostly ironic because the vast majority of Chinese books are translated into Hebrew through English. I bought Chronicle of a Blood Merchant in large part to send a subtle hint to publishers that they can translate directly from the original language, and shouldn't be quite so cheap. Turns out I liked the book.