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"Red Sorghum" (1986) - 2012 Nobel Prize Winner Mo Yan's First Novel, a Family History Taking Place over Decades


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"Red Sorghum" is one of the more challenging novels I've ever read. This was 2012 Nobel Laureate Mo Yan's first novel, and remains his most famous - it was made into a film, also called "Red Sorghum," in 1987.

As with so many other great works of literature, I'm saying to myself right now, 'There's no way this could be made into a film without losing much of its "guts"' - there's just too much that goes on inside of peoples' heads for it to be conveyed on the big screen. Oh, the story can be told, but not in anything remotely resembling the strange and mysterious narrative penned by Yan.

It doesn't even matter if I tell you what the book is about: "Red Sorghum" is narrated by a descendant of a family of sorghum winemakers, and he jumps back-and-forth through time (the duration of the story is about fifty years, from the early 1920s until the 1970s, passing through the Great Leap Forward (perhaps the deadliest event in human history), and ending with the Cultural Revolution), telling the strange and fascinating history of his family, and the hard times and misery they endure, with the red sorghum itself being the only thing (other than the narrator) which links together the tale. Also, don't assume you'll pick up any snippets of real-life history by reading this; you won't.

So, even though I just told you what the novel is about, it doesn't make one iota of difference - it's the type of book you *must* read to understand, and it is extremely difficult to get through. It isn't the language that's difficult; it's keeping up with the numerous characters, and adapting to sudden shifts in time (without being told you've shifted in time). 

I've read tougher books in my life, but probably less than a dozen (and I've read some pretty darned tough books).

I highly recommend "Red Sorghum," but it sure isn't for everybody - you have to *want* this novel, and steel yourself for some very complicated and confusing literature. I got to the point where, for the final two-thirds of the book, I was taking notes on the pages - titling every single page with the gist of what happened on it; otherwise, it would have been impossible for me to refer back and find something I needed to find.

Is this Nobel-worthy literature? Yes. I understand the Nobel is a lifetime-achievement award, but this is a worthy component of Yan's oeuvre that contributes fully to him winning the Nobel.

Writing long-form literature this complex is a skill that I could never possess, so it's difficult for me to even comprehend how someone could write something such as this - it must have taken him forever-and-a-day, and I suspect the reason this was Yan's first novel (at age 31) was that he had spent the past decade thinking about it.

My guess is that it's very unlikely that any of our members have read this, but if anyone is out there (even just lurking) who has, I would love to discuss aspects of this novel with you - I read it without any help, and as I post this, I have still yet to read any reviews or critiques of "Red Sorghum." I look forward to doing so, so that I can figure out exactly what in the hell I've spent the past six months reading.

Also, don't do what I did (pick the book up only occasionally) - this is a novel that needs to be read continuously; not sporadically. I am *so glad* I decided to take notes (I even bought a second book several months ago, so I could have a new one once I was finished defacing the one I read).

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Up until page 70-or-so, I was keeping notes on:


1) dates (and page numbers on which they're first referenced)

2) people (and page numbers on which they're first referenced)

3) chapters


This might be of use to someone reading this edition (for the first 25% of the novel); at around page 70, I began copiously writing in the book itself:



1911 Xinhai Revolution (Implied) 15

1912 First Year of Republic 46

1938 Japanese-Forced Labor 15

1939 Yu Zhan'ao's Ambush 3


Aiyaya 14

Altair the Her Boy 8

Foreman (Uncle) Arhat Liu 7

Mid-Autumn Festival 5

Black Water River 5

Browning Pistol 28

Sedan Chair for Wedding 43

Japanese Cinder Pit

Japanese Commander w/Dog 35

Dai Fenglian (in Clapper Song) 13

Douguan 3

Douguan's Grave 3

Fang Six and Fang Seven 13

Fistcakes (NE Gaomi bandits) 50

Gaomi Township (NE) 4

Grandma 3

Japanese General 13

Tall/Short Japanese Soldiers 16

Jiao County (N end, J-P Hwy) 10

Jiao-Ping Highway 3

Detachment Leader Leng 26

Cao Lingzi 55

Liu Sishan, Commander Yu’s Bugler 27

Mute 12

Pingdu County (S end, J-P Hwy) 10

Octans (Glass Well) 8

Qingming (Ancestral Grave Day) 42

Qufu (Home of Confucius) 46

Adjutant Ren 6

Sagittarius 8

Shan Bianlang 41

Shan Tingxiu 41

Sun Five (Hog Butcher) 37

Three Stars 23

Toad Hollow (Holdup) 49

Ursa Major (Death) 7

Vega the Mournful Weaving Girl 8

Wang Wenyi 5

Wang Wenyi’s Three Sons 69

Wang Wenyi’s Wife 63

White Horse Mountain 15

Woman, 92-Yr-Old from Gaomi 13

Big-Tooth Yu, Quartermaster (Commander Yu’s Uncle) 47

Commander Yu Zhan'ao 3


Chapter Beginning Pages, British Hardcover Edition

  1. 3

  2. 13

  3. 15

  4. 25

  5. 41

  6. 53

  7. 63

  8. 70
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