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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Mo Yan's novel gives animal's-eye view of Chinese transformation

Through a series of reincarnations, the tale of China's caldron of transformation in the second half of the 20th century.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out"

by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt

Arcade, 552 pp., $27.50

No country in the second half of the 20th century experienced more violent change than China. From the Maoist victories of the late 1940s, through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in the '60s and '70s, to the new experiments in Chinese-style capitalism of the '90s, Chinese society has been a caldron of transformation.

As a novelist, to tell such a monumental story you need supreme confidence, a deep understanding of the human heart and extraordinary literary gifts. Mo Yan is such an artist.

In his newest novel, "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out," Yan creates the perfect metaphor for China's recent history: the reincarnation of the soul.

Yan's hero and chief narrator, Ximen Nao, is a former rich landowner who falls victim to Mao Zedong's Land Reform Movement. Although known as a fair and decent man, Nao loses both his land and his life to the Communist regime. Relegated to Hell, Nao is forced by Lord Yama, King of the Underworld, to be reborn, again and again, until his anger with his perceived injustice is purged from his soul. First, he re-enters the world as a donkey, then, in succession, as an ox, pig, dog, and monkey, until he finally returns as a human. From the unique vantage point as an animal with some lingering human thoughts, Nao relates the life of his peasant village and its people through 50 years of economic and personal struggle.

Inventing a large cast of believable people is one thing. (Yan's list of principle characters numbers 17.) To bring them vividly to mind while simultaneously fashioning a counter world of animal intelligence — the smells, sights, fears and violence implicit in the daily life of creatures — is a spectacular achievement.

With operatic passion, Yan's characters expand and contract with extreme emotions. Cruelty and vengeance in beasts and humans are always present, as are strength and courage.

Here is Nao, as a donkey, defending his beloved from an attack by wolves:

" ... I reared up and aimed my hoofs at one of them, but it darted out of the way, so I spun around and landed on the back of the second wolf, driving it under the water, where I held it as bubbles rose to the surface. Meanwhile, the first wolf leapt onto the neck of my beloved. Seeing the danger she was in, I abandoned the drowning wolf and kicked out with my rear hoofs, hitting the attacker square in the head."

With three narrators (Mo Yan himself is a recurring character) and more subplots than a year's worth of television dramas, Yan's title is literally true. You do get worn out from this huge monster of a book. For there is nothing this artist can't write about. Be it the steadfast devotion of a dog, the lacerating despair of a lover, a husband's selfish betrayal, a pig's dawning admiration for an enemy — it all appears like fluid calligraphy on the page.

Our heartfelt thanks to translator Howard Goldblatt for his amazing job of turning this masterful work of art into living, breathing English.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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