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December 12, 2012

Reviewing A Nobel Laureate’s Work

Tom McLaughlin

Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan, the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature: A Book Review.


When the Nobel Prize in Literature was earned by Chinese national Mo Yan, I decided to tackle one of his books. The major reason was to help me comprehend the Oriental mind through literature. I teach and live among the Chinese here in Malaysian Borneo, and I thought this would help me understand their history and culture.


Usually, I ignore books by Nobel Laureates. They are ponderous, require an intellectual mind-set and are translated from the original, which loses so much of the nuances and inferences which makes literature great. In other words, they are usually a chore and a bore.


I went to my iPad app and browsed through the list of titles by Mo Yan. The Garlic Bread and The Republic of Wine sounded more like cookbooks. Life and Death are Wearing Me Out seemed depressing. Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh was not appealing and neither was Cambios because if it meant looking up what the title meant and would require a lot of dictionary work.


But, what was this? A book by a Nobel Prize winner entitled Big Breasts and Wide Hips with the word “literature” as the descriptor? No, this could not be true. How in the world could somebody write a book about breasts and win the Nobel Prize?


I sat down with my iPad ready to highlight eloquent phrases that I could steal for my writing. I wanted to discover expressive and illuminating sequencing of words that would seize my imagination and beam me to rural pre-war pastoral and provincial China. All of this would help me with my scribing and, I convinced myself, I would just pass over the other part.


And, I did get descriptions, especially about the river that flowed through the hamlet. Each season, the river revealed its pre-menopausal moods. In spring, the roaring floods surged, swamped, swept and rushed through the village creating misery. In summer, the river became a stream, then a brook, followed by a creek and trickled to a rivulet finally to dust. This caused more misery because the crops failed. The process reversed in autumn starting with dust until the whole mess froze solid in winter creating agony, anguish, depression, desolation, despair, more desolation and gloom. And still they worshiped it.


The mood of the river also reflects the lives of a Chinese family who suffered war, famine, floods, pestilence, plague, revolution, counter revolution, counter counter revolution, Cultural Revolution, Japanese invasion and locusts. Except for a very few light moments, the book causes the reader to sink into bleakness, blue funk, dejection, desolation, ennui, melancholy, mortification, vapors and lugubriosity.


Now, imagine his writing mechanics of the detailed description of the river and then apply it to breasts. With eight daughters and a mother, that’s nine sets of breasts; and he describes every one of them. Not only does he go through those 18, but others from grandmothers to budding 10 year olds also receive his rapt attention. After awhile, one becomes so desensitized from his depictions, details, explanations, narratives, portrayal, and rundown of breasts that one would never, ever look at them again as an object of erotica.


To make a 500+ page novel short, the tome follows a mother, her eight daughters and the son, number nine in the birth order, through all that strife, struggle and misery. It roughly chronicles historical events beginning with the Japanese invasions, back tracks to the 1900s to catch a few more breasts, then returns through the war, the 1950s and early 60s.The book was first edited and then approved by the Chinese government, which is very strict about the interpretation of history but didn’t give one iota about breasts. I don’t know what that says about a culture.


I am not sure the Nobel Committee had this book in mind when they awarded Mo Yan the highest honor in literature. It is usually the whole body of work that receives the accolades. I am just happy he did not get to the “wide hips” part of the title, or I would be looking at the little toe as a source of salacious entertainment.


…Life is good. . . . .


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