According to Howard Goldblatt, Mo’s American translator and passionate advocate, Mo has said: “If you like, you can skip my other novels, but you must read Big Breasts & Wide Hips. In it I wrote about history, war, politics, hunger, religion, love, and sex.” That is no exaggeration. Big Breasts & Wide Hips goes for all the marbles. It calls to mind a couple of other novels of fairly recent vintage that attempt to embrace the history of the author’s country (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) or continent (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). It calls them to mind, but it falls well short of the heights they achieve. Its ambition is laudable, and its humanity is self-evident, but it only infrequently achieves literary grace or distinction.
Granted, literary quality in translations is always difficult to appraise fairly unless the reader knows the language being translated, and Chinese is notoriously difficult to render in English. Goldblatt (who teaches Asian studies at Notre Dame) appears to be near-universally regarded as the leading English-language translator of fiction from the Chinese, so presumably he has struck that difficult balance between fidelity to the original and readability in translation. The result is a novel with clear if rather uninspired prose, loose narrative structure and a profusion of characters, many of whom are interesting and strong, but the Western reader has difficulty distinguishing one from the other because of the unfamiliarity of their Chinese proper names. Goldblatt fortunately has supplied a “List of Principal Characters,” and I found myself flipping back to it over and over again: Who is Sha Yueliang, who is Sha Zaohua, who is Sima Ting, who is Sima Ku?
For some reason Goldblatt does not tell us, in his otherwise very helpful introduction, that Mo Yan (which means “don’t speak”) is the pen name of Guan Moye, about whom you can read much of interest at http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/68238.htm. He was born to a peasant family in Shandong Province in eastern China (which he fictionalizes as Northeast Gaomi County, his version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) and, Goldblatt writes, had “little formal schooling before being sent out into the fields to tend livestock and then into factories during the disastrous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976),” which he satirizes to stinging effect in this novel. He seems to be almost entirely self-educated; he acknowledges having read and admired the Latin American novelists of “the Boom,” but insists that his own country and his own experience are the raw materials from which his work is drawn.
Among the many convictions of Mo Yan’s that surface in Big Breasts & Wide Hips, none is more prominent than his passionate feminism. It’s easy to be a feminist in the West, but something else altogether in China, where women for centuries have been exploited, undervalued and often despised, where “the cruel reality [was] that for a woman, not getting married was not an option, not having children was not acceptable, and having only daughters was nothing to be proud of. The only road to status in a family was to produce sons.” That is a description of attitudes in China between the world wars; more recently women have achieved certain rights and opportunities, but the government’s attempt to limit families to one child and the wide availability of Chinese girl babies in the international adoption market make plain that old attitudes linger. In taking such a strong feminist position, Mo is very much against the grain.