At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face […].
For a writer, he goes on to say, speaks best when he is writing. And so it is with the words of his latest novel, translated beautifully by Howard Goldblatt, that Mo Yan speaks of his attitude toward the Communist Party’s controversial family planning drives.
In Frog, his first novel since winning the Nobel, Mo Yan continues to use his fictionalized setting of Northeast Gaomi Township to explore the impact of the so-called one-child policy. In a series of letters written to his Japanese professor, Sensei, the playwright Tadpole (Wan Zu, which means “foot,” and later, Xiaopao, or “jogger”) narrates the story of Gugu (Wan Xin, meaning “heart”), the formidable aunt of Tadpole and county obstetrician.
Gugu — who at one point earns the nickname “Living Queen of Hell” — is first the official midwife, then obstetrician, of the township. A major turning point early in Tadpole’s life, however, sees that she is revered just as much for her unwavering zeal as she is for her skill. After being betrayed by the handsome pilot Wang Xiaoti (who defects after a brief courtship with Gugu to Taiwan), Gugu ends up slitting her wrists in the name of the Party, denouncing Wang Xiaoti in a melodramatic message written in her own blood — an act that, even for the Party, proves too extreme. After this radical incident, the Party puts Gugu on probation, but this doesn’t dissuade Gugu: after a period of recuperation from her suicide attempt, she returns to her obstetric work at the health center, her commitment to the “straight and narrow” reaffirmed.
In 1965, the Chinese government, faced with famine and the pressures of overpopulation, decided to enact a family planning policy, where “one is good, two is just right, three is too many.” After being promoted to director of the healthcare center in which she works, it quickly becomes Gugu’s life mission to enforce IUDs and vasectomies upon the unwilling villagers, and apprehend any violators. “Mankind must control itself, people must learn to embrace viable population growth,” Gugu repeats with unflinching fervor as she performs another abortion. But at what cost? As the victims of forced birth control pile up, the cries of the villagers against the policy go unheard with tragic consequences. During several dramatic chases down the local river in pursuit of women attempting to escape abortion or IUD enforcement, Gugu’s drastic methods begin to impact not only the lives of the villagers but also the lives of those closest to her.
“What is a woman born to do?” Tadpole recalls his mother lamenting about Gugu, after Tadpole’s first wife Renmei dies following a botched abortion.
When all is said and done, a woman is born to have children. A woman’s status is determined by the children she bears, as are the dignity she enjoys and the happiness and glory she accrues. Not having children is a woman’s greatest torment. A woman without children is something less than whole, and she grows hard-hearted; a woman without children ages faster.
And indeed, as Gugu, who remains childless throughout the course of the novel, becomes more extreme about and with her work, unattractive qualities begin to take over her appearance. But it’s not a lack of attractiveness to men that makes Gugu’s actions, so valued by the Party, contentious. As Gugu and equally reprehensible bourgeois colleague and obstetrician Huang Qiuya force women and men against their will into adopting methods and physical barriers of birth control, the pervading sentiment is that fanaticism of any kind — intellectual or not — is bound for destruction. Whether or not there is atonement for such behavior, however, is another matter.
Mo Yan, like his idol Gabriel García Márquez, has long been considered a magic realist, but he doesn’t present his trademark “hallucinatory realism” until the second half of the book, after the epic, social realist panorama of the first half. After two unsuccessful attempts at betrothal, worsening insomnia, and a decision to stop performing abortions, Gugu eventually marries Hao Dashou (“big hand”), a folk artist who makes dolls so real that they themselves are like living children. In a particularly harrowing passage, Gugu explains that she came to fall in love with Dashou after he rescued her from a hallucination where the souls of dead children rose in the guise of frogs. Throughout the novel, Mo Yan has used the frog as a cipher for the exponential propagation of China’s population, even comparing tadpoles to human sperm, but it is in the following section where the reader receives the full, evocative brunt of the horrors of Gugu’s nightmarish actions:
Some were jade green, others were golden yellow; some were as big as an electric iron, others as small as date pits. The eyes of some were like nuggets of gold, those of others, red beans. They came upon her like ocean waves, enshrouding her with their angry croaks, and it felt as if all those mouths were pecking at her skin, that they had grown nails to scrape it. […] She said she was suddenly reminded of a legend her grandmother had told her about a seducing frog: A maiden cooling herself on a riverbank one night fell asleep and dreamed of a liaison with a young man dressed in green. When she awoke she was pregnant and eventually gave birth to a nest of frogs.
The novel’s final sections take the story into new territories. During a raft ride with a young man called Flathead, Tadpole, now in his fifties, discovers that a bullfrog farm run by Tadpole’s classmate is a front for a surrogate birthing center. Upon hearing the news, Tadpole’s second wife, Little Lion, also now in her fifties, and also Gugu’s intern, secretly takes Tadpole’s sperm to insert into a surrogate in a bid for a child. After contemplating whether to convince the surrogate, the daughter of a classmate, to abort, Tadpole eventually comes round to the idea, but following some golden-oldie rolling around in the hay, the middle-aged Little Lion falls pregnant, eventually giving birth.
When Tadpole presents the play to his Sensei in the fifth and final section, however, this entire narrative is turned upside down. The play, similar to the Sartre works referenced in Tadpole’s opening letter to Sensei, is based around a trial, in this case regarding the parentage of Tadpole’s newborn child. In the play, Tadpole takes the opportunity to reimagine the motivations and secrets of his friends and family, including imagining reasons behind Gugu’s fear of frogs. But by reinterpreting these events, Tadpole, and by extension, Mo Yan, calls into question everything that passed in the previous hundred pages. Does the middle-aged Little Lion in fact have the child? Is everything Tadpole has written to Sensei a lie? What does it mean to give oneself a happy ending? The play ends by announcing the true mother of the child, giving Tadpole and Gugu the resolutions they have been searching for. But in doing so it is evident that whatever conclusions people write for themselves are simply compromises, fantastically disguised.
“Writing for absolution is writing for myself but only to a point; I think I ought to write for the people I hurt, and the people who hurt me,” writes Tadpole in one of his letters to Sensei. In his Nobel speech, Mo Yan posits another answer for why it is so important to write about the sorrows of days gone by:
My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, […] not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event.
As a member of society, he goes on to say, a novelist may have his own views, but when he is writing, “he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly,” for then literature can not only just “show concern for politics, but be greater than politics.” Mo Yan can only remain silent on his government’s actions of the past and present, but through his literature, his characters rise above their circumstances, finding the redemption that they so desperately, yearningly seek.
Nicole Lee’s essays, criticism, and features have appeared in or will be appearing in The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Brooklyn Quarterly.