Review: Frog by Mo Yan

 

Title: Frog

Author: Mo Yan

Published: Hamish Hamilton: Penguin October 2014

Read an excerpt

Status: Read from October 29 to November 01, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Frog is the latest novel from contemporary Chinese novelist Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.

The novel is presented in five parts, with each prefaced by a letter from our narrator, Wan Zu/Xiaopao/Tadpole, an aspiring playright, to his Japanese mentor. Set in a rural community in the Shangdong province of China, the events he relates spans several decades from 1960 to around 2000.

Frog deals largely with the controversial themes of China’s one child policy with Tadpole writing about his Aunt Gugu, a skilled and popular midwife who later, as a loyal communist, becomes a reviled militant enforcer of the country’s one-child policy. Wan Zu, who plans to write a play about her, relates his observations about the effect of the reform over time on his Aunt and the members of his rural community.

It is important to note that the author, as a Chinese citizen, is forced to skirt government censorship so there is no direct criticism of China’s one child policy, which he personally opposes, and some consequences of the law, such as infanticide – where girl baby’s were murdered in order for family’s to try for a boy- are never referred to. There are some harrowing and brutal scenes, including women dragged from their homes to undergo forced late term abortions and some general examples of draconian political practices including public shaming and punishment.

Surprisingly perhaps, there is also a generous amount of humour in the story, from Wang Gan’s crush on ‘Little Lion’ to a hand drawn watch, from the rivalry between Gugu and the traditional midwives, and later her supervisor, and the often farcial events and conversations at family gatherings.

I was interested to learn that the title ‘Frog’ has multiple meanings which underscore the themes of the novel. The obvious association stems from he narrator of the story who, when writing to his mentor, signs his name as Tadpole. Less obvious to readers unfamiliar with the Chinese language is that the Chinese character for frog is a homophone for a legendary Chinese goddess who created human beings and patched up the sky, and in English the pronunciation is similar to ‘wah’, as in a baby’s cry. Additionally, in some areas of rural China, frogs are revered as symbols of fertility.

I have to admit I struggled to keep the characters straight at times, hampered by unfamiliar and similar sounding names amongst a large cast. The first three parts of the novel held my interest but it begin to wane during the last two, which includes the play Tadpole has been promising his mentor.

Frog is is not an easy read but an illuminating one, essentially a tragicomedy, exploring the collision of China’s politics with the personal.

 

Available to purchase from

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around-the-world-2014

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thebookdate
    Nov 02, 2014 @ 19:07:13

    Shelleyrae
    I know this one isn’t for me, but interesting all the same. I admire you for really attending to it and reading it through even though you had challenges. The one child policy makes me very sad, especially the cruelties you mention in your review.

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  2. Deborah
    Nov 02, 2014 @ 19:27:46

    Oh yes, I don’t think it’s my kind of book but thank you for reviewing and sharing. (Far too ‘real’ for me!)😉

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  3. Brona
    Nov 03, 2014 @ 14:38:45

    I have this on my TBR pile, but the back cover & now your review have shown me that I will need to pick the right mood for me to get into this book properly.

    I do love Chinese based literature, but it’s not always easy to stomach.

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  4. Leila @ Readers' Oasis
    Nov 03, 2014 @ 22:43:43

    Sounds somewhat challenging… but I am interested, so I may give this one a try. Thanks for the review!

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  5. stacybuckeye
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 10:29:51

    This may be too challenging for me!

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  6. herschelian
    Nov 21, 2014 @ 23:00:57

    I have worked in China for 20+ years, and lived here full-time for five. The One Child Policy is incredibly complex and often misunderstood. Western media have always reported the most extreme cases and so many in the west think that forced abortions and female infanticide were the norm – they certainly happened but were not as common as you might think. The majority of the population have not disagreed with it (to my surprise) and it has recently been recinded.
    How it works in China is that Central Government sets a policy and then each province (ie each ‘state’) implements it in its own way. Some provinces and provincial departments were harsher than others on this, some were very laisse-faire. Because of the ‘Great Hunger’ where over 30 million are estimated to have died of starvation, and no family was left untouched, the One Child Policy has been seen as essential to limit population by most Chinese citizens. Mo Yan has chosen to use extreme cases/individuals in this book, however many in China criticise his approach despite him being revered as a great author – which indeed he is.

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  7. Trackback: Around the World in 12 Books Challenge: October & November Round-up | Giraffe Days

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