This is the third book I have read by Mo Yan. The first was a collection of short stories and the second was Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and while I found Mr. Mo to be an engaging and talented author, neither of those books left me exactly panting for more, so to speak. Still, when I saw this book I decided to give it a try, more from an interest in Chinese history than for any other reason.
And for the first three quarters of the book I found it to be very gripping and compelling. The history has been somewhat altered to fit the story, but that is to be expected. (And as an aside, you do not really have to know much more about Chinese history other than that there have been numerous popular uprising throughout the last two thousand years of Chinese history, including the Yellow Turbans, Red Eyebrows, Taipings, etc., as well as the Brotherhood of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, more commonly known as the Boxers, depicted here. And that many of them have been inspired by semi-religious semi-mythical leaders leading an unlettered rabble and yet coming perilously close to actually overthrowing the established authority). But the depictions of late nineteenth century village life in rural China are both vivid and believable, and the characters (with the exception of the Germans) both well rounded and engaging. As I read through these first three hundred pages or so I kept telling myself that this guy really did deserve the Nobel Prize.
But then to my great disappointment, over the last hundred pages the book fell flat. Now I'm not a blood and guts guy. In general, I would rather avoid reading detailed descriptions of pain and suffering. But in this case it was necessary. Oh, I understand what the author was attempting to do. He was attempting to show how real life situations transform themselves into myths, which then transform themselves into play acting. Okay, so far so good. But in order to do this he needed me to truly feel the torturous pain that Sun Bing was experiencing in the book's ultimate punishment, (similar to what he did previously in his description of the slicing punishment). And in this he failed to deliver. Perhaps this is because the sandalwood torture might never have been real in the first place (and therefore already in the realm of the mythical), at least in such a skilled and refined manner as is offered here, in which no internal organs would suffer any physical damage. I'm not convinced that such a torture would even be physiologically possible. At any rate, the author in describing this punishment failed to deliver on the reality of the suffering, and therefore transformed the real into the myth then into the stage acting much too quickly, at least in my opinion.
But whether you agree with that assessment or not, I still recommend that this book be read. After finishing this work, I became convinced that the whole Nobel Prize argument is a red herring. The important question is not whether or not he deserves the Nobel Prize. Anyone knows that all prizes are ultimately political. The important questions are whether this author, or this book, are worth reading. And the answer to both of those is a solid 'yes.'