The Garlic Ballads tells the tale of a group of Chinese peasants whose lives are dependent upon selling their garlic crop; when harvests exceed governmental estimates, officials curb the amount of garlic that can be brought to market, setting off a violent chain of events. Against this backdrop, Yan weaves three stories: that of two lovers, which dominates the novel, as well as a familial conflict and the relationship between two friends.
Goldblatt's translation is so good as to make the reader mistake this for an English novel; the prose is nearly flawless. Set in rural China, The Garlic Ballads explores the misfortune of ordinary Chinese farmers during the post revolutionary period. The very title which focuses on the word ‘Ballads’ reveals that it is a love story in particular spiced by magic realism. The harrowing experiences make the stuff of the novel. The small dramas of the Gao and Yang families, set against a slightly larger but nonetheless miniscule backdrop of rural corruption gets steadily deeper as it progresses, illuminating the paradoxes of modern China and the unchanging demands of love, family, and duty. There are also other heterogeneous elements - an arranged marriage, a botched directive from central agricultural planners, a drunk driver with government connections. All are woven into a coherent whole through the poetic vision of Mo Yan who easily peddles in realism.
This novel, which focuses on the aftermath of an uprising, is a tragic story, which depicts both a very specific time and place and sheds light onto basic human truths. The people of Paradise County have been encouraged, if not ordered, to grow garlic, and so garlic has infused itself into every aspect of the people's lives - their breath reeks of it, their celebrations tainted with it. But the governing officials of Paradise County are out to grab up every cooper they can, and so follow the taxes for traveling the roads to the co-op warehouses, the penalties, the closures, and one day the garlic farmers have had enough and act against the officials making their lives so full of hardship.
The government retaliates, and Yan focuses on some of the victims. First, there is Gao Yang, who suffers enough with a blind daughter and a new son soon to be born, but he is beaten and brought to jail. One who escapes at first is Gao Ma, a former soldier who longs to marry Jinjun, whose family has agreed to marry her to someone else, but Gao Ma and Jinjun do not take the alternate marriage lightly, and trouble ensues from there. Jinjun's mother, fourth aunt of the Fang family, is also sought after in the police hunt since she won't stay quiet about her husband being run over by a government official, and the lives of these peasants intertwine through the courses of love and justice. The Fang family is cruel to both Jinjun and Gao Ma as they try to reject the lovers' vow to be married, and Gao Yang suffers humiliation and torment from his cellmates.
Fourthly we have the character of the aunt who appears to be tyrannical at home, but in jail she becomes a different creature altogether. At times, she is bawdy and scatological, at other times heart-breaking and lyrical. Thus through the characters, Mo Yan gives us the entirety of the human spectrum in his novel. The main story in The Garlic Ballads details the tragic love story of Gao Ma and Fang Jinju. This story is told in parallel with the life of Gao Yang and some other stories. All are inter-related. The background is a Chinese village in the mid 1980s. The details make it frightfully real. The central focus of the book is, however, on an invasion and trashing by an angry mob of the local governmental offices. We do not see this event occur until the end of the book, yet it colors every moment in the lives of the Fang and Gao families of Paradise County.
It is understandable that the Beijing government would suppress a novel that shows most of its local officials to be bloated satraps and its policement to be little better than thugs, applying cattle prods to their prisoners and beating them mercilessly. Equally villainous, however, is the Fang family, which forces their daughter to marry an old man in a three-in-one arranged marriage that guarantees that their crippled eldest son also gets a bride. In a grisly scene, the marriage deal finally goes through after both the daughter and her fiance commit suicide. Their bodies are dug up, their remains are mixed together, and they are re-interred in a single coffin. The full picture of alternating hopelessness and rebellion emerges slowly and tragically, and the disparate elements weave together into an elegant and moving whole.
The Swedish Academy which selected Yan as the recipient of the Nobel Prize praised his ‘hallucinatory realism’ saying that along with his other writings, Sorghum, The Big Breasts and Wide Hips, The Garlic Ballads ‘merges folk tales, history and the contemporary’. Yan, in his writings mingled fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives and thus created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Although Yan is the writer of eleven novels and hundreds of short stories, The Garlic Ballads seems to be his masterpiece. Born in 1955 to farmer parents, Yan - a pseudonym for Guan Moye; the pen name means "don't speak" - grew up in Gaomi in Shandong province in north-eastern China. The cultural revolution forced him to leave school at 12, and he went to work in the fields, completing his education in the army. He writes about the peasantry, about life in the countryside, about people struggling to survive, struggling for their dignity, sometimes winning but most of the time losing.
Arundhati Roy's A God of small Things is graphic and captivating, but seen from that perspective, The Garlic Ballads is ten times more so. The novel depicts simple people living in hard times, in very helpless circumstances. Basically there was no way out, and people could only console themselves that their lives were `fated'. “I think writers write for their conscience, they write for their own true audiences, for their souls,” Yan said in an interview with China Daily. "No person writes to win awards." Today the best reward in literature comes to him. In fact he is the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Garlic Ballads seems to have gained prominence no less than Marquez’s 100 years of Solitude.