I try to write reviews of books I think my readers will find stimulating. These don't always fall in the Daoist or Martial arts categories. At the recent conference on Daoism I attended in Boston, I met Sabina Knight who was interviewed widely after Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her review of Mo Yan's work is a must read, The National Interest. If that link doesn't work here is a link to the PDF.
Here is another link to an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she was also interviewed by NPR if you prefer pod casts.
After reading Knight's review I had to go out and read Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out . I'm not going to write my own review because this one is so good, but I will add some comments.
If you know a bit about post 1949 Chinese history, it is increadibly entertaining to hear a first person account of the various eras from the point of view of a donkey or a pig. The layers of irony get so deep you really can't crawl out of the well. It is as if Mo Yan is doing an exorcism and you, the reader, are the demonic force being ensnared by irony and then entrapped in a deep well of meaning.
The layers of irony are not just historical, there are just as many layers of irony from literature both Chinese and International, the pig with human attributes for instance is clearly a bit of slop thrown in Orwell's direction. The Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a pig is so infused with theatricality that in 500 years it could perhaps be included as an 'outer chapter' of Sun Wukong's Journey to the West. Outlaws of the Marsh makes an appearance too. The characters faces often have color as if they were painted for a performance. And I found this great description of the kind of music I use when teaching Northern Shaolin to kids: "It penetrates clouds and pulverizes stones."
Sabina Knight points out that the title is a reference to Buddhism and that throughout the novel he is using phrases which are taken straight out of Buddhist scripture. There is also an enormous amout of popular religion floating around the book, again layered in as irony with new meanings and absurd contexts. For instance there is a chapter title (52) "...turn fake into real." I read this as a reference to the Daoist elixir practice (jindan).
It is not an easy book to read. But is has magical qualities that make it worthwile. It seemed that each time as I neared the end of the book a new section mysterously appeared. The novel follows a landlord executed in 1950 sir-named "Ximen" or Western Gate, which is cosmologically the gate we pass through when we die. He is then re-incarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and finally a big headed boy.
This is an amazingly rich work, the Nobel Prize folks got this one right. May they escape torture in Lord Yama's Court. Mo Yan's name means: "Don't Talk," he is one of the most iteresting political writers of our time.