It feels wrong to give a Nobel prize-winner only 3*, but I didn't enjoy this enough to give it four.
It is based on a true incident in the 1980s (though life is so basic, it's a shock to realise how recent it is), when farmers rioted after the government refused to buy all the garlic it had told them to grow, because there of the resulting glut. I presume the individual characters are inventions, or composites.
Each chapter starts with a few lines of a ballad that outline the bare bones of the story, as sung by Zhang Kou, a blind minstrel.
The main text follows individual characters: how they became involved with the uprising, their relationships with each other, what happened afterwards etc. There are two main timelines, though it isn't always immediately obvious when some sections are set, which I found irritating. Another annoyance was a few passages that suddenly switched to first-person, in a somewhat jarring way.
The main characters are Gao Yang who has a blind daughter and newborn son, and Gao Ma, a younger (and single) man, along with Jinju and her mother, Fourth Aunt Fang.
Because it is describing a political injustice with devastating consequences, along with corrupt officials inclined to torture those beneath them, it is painfully graphic a lot of the time. The brutality of family and neighbours is almost as bad. Such incidents need to be documented, but it's hard to read, at times.
At first, the explicitness is more subtle, conjuring poverty in more subtle ways. For example, instead of saying that Gao Yang is too poor to buy new shoes, it says "Baked earth burned the soles of his feet; the intense heat made his eyes water. With the sun beating down on his bare back, he scraped caked-on dirt from his chest."
The visceral descriptions of pain, flesh and bodily fluids that follow are relentless, although they are counterbalanced with poetic descriptions of plants, birds, and landscapes. At times, the link is explicit, as when one captive "took a last look at the poplar tree where he had been [agonisingly] shackled, and actually felt a tinge of nostalgia." Another time, colourful parakeets are bloodily slaughtered, "clouds of living colour that whirled above... until, wing-weary, they fell like stones, thudding like heavy rain drops".
THEMES AND SYMBOLS
Despite all the blood, pus and urine, tears are probably more important, especially the desperate desire not to shed them (and to deny it when doing so). A typical refrain is "Gao Yang's eyes were awash with tears. 'I'm not crying', he reassured himself".
There are also certain plants and crops that are mentioned in ways that makes me think they contain additional associations that I am unaware of, principally indigo, jute and corn. (The garlic is more obvious.)
It is all so painfully real, a fleeting mention of ghosts - as if they are entirely real - comes as an anachronistic shock.
Of course, the main theme is about the incompetence and corruption of government, and how it is the peasant farmers who suffer. Standing up for what is right is very dangerous. I should probably state that Mo Yan is a pen name that means "don't speak" in Chinese.
The ending was incomplete for many characters (which I don't mind), but the final scene felt forced and clichéd.