This strange title turns out to be a perfect summation of the book. The narrator / protagonist was a wealthy land owner named Ximen Nao who was executed when the Communists gained power in China. In heaven, Lord Yama (the judge in Chinese folklore’s version of the afterlife) sentences Ximen Nao to be sent back to Earth as a donkey, and—in subsequent lives—as an ox, a pig, a dog, and, finally and briefly, as a monkey. He’s always sent back to the family of one of his former underlings, Lan Lian, and the story follows that family over the course of several decades through the Cultural Revolution and China’s grand reforms.
The early parts (the lives of donkey, ox, and part of pig) are centered on Lan Lian’s decision to remain an independent farmer. Mao Zedong promised all farmers the right to remain independent contractors if they wished, but there was great pressure—first from the community and later from his own family—to become part of the commune. This ends up dividing the family, and ultimately Lan Lian ends up on his own. The latter part of the book (i.e. dog and monkey lives) deals with Lan Lian’s children (and eventually their children), and—particularly–with Lan Jiefang who shares a birthmark and a stubborn streak with his father. Lan Jiefang’s stubbornness is revealed as a desire to divorce his wife and to marry a younger woman. His equally stubborn wife refuses the divorce, and Jiefang and his young lover become ostracized. At the tail end of the book we see how Lan Jiefang’s son is afflicted by the same dogged determination to pursue a costly path—as a respected member of the police force he falls for a former classmate who has become a pariah.
The book mixes humor with tragedy. The animal incarnations of Ximen Nao each have its own personality, but retain some of the landlord’s character and memories. The animal stories are both part of and comedic counterpoint to the tales of woe experienced by Lan Lian’s family. Mo Yan has cameo appearances throughout the book, though in the dog’s life section he plays a more substantial role. References to Mo Yan’s character invariably come with self-deprecating humor. The author creates characters that the reader is interested in. What I call stubbornness is really a tenacious willingness to suffer for the principle of pursing one’s own happiness. In the case of Lan Jiefang and his wife, the reader is likely to be torn by the gray situation. The wife seems the more sympathetic character, but, still, one can’t help but appreciating the tenacity of Lan Jiefang and his willingness to suffer so greatly on the principle that “the heart wants what the heart wants.”
In addition to a good story with vibrant characters, this book offers a birds-eye view of China in the latter half of the 20th century. What is happening in the lives of the characters isn’t divorced from what is going on in the world, but is shaped by it. One notices this most vividly across the three generations over which the book’s story unfolds—with the middle generation (Lan Jiefang’s) serving as hinge point. When Lan Jiefang’s half-brother goes from being a Communist Party apparatchik to the wealthy CEO of a large firm, it’s a reflection of the societal undercurrents.
I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it for readers of fiction—and particularly translated literary fiction.