November 26, 2012


By Mo Yan
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
~6500 words

At a negotiation between butchers and cattle merchants, a boy witnesses his father's humiliation and unexpected redemption.

The story takes place during the childhood of the unnamed narrator, who sets about recounting it "years later." The events center on the narrator's father, Luo Tong, and his remarkable ability to estimate the weight of livestock to within a kilo. The talent, combined with Luo Tong's apparent imperviousness to corruption, makes him a trusted arbiter in negotiations between cattle merchants and butchers, and he is able to earn a meager living off the commissions. But his popularity runs him afoul of a corrupt local official, Lao Lan, who shows up at one of the negotiations and urinates on the cigarettes that the merchants and butchers have offered Luo Tong as a preliminary gift. Only when he saves Lao Lan from a castrated bull run amok is Luo Tong able to redeem himself in his son's eyes.

The story's strength is the flawed nature of Luo Tong as seen through the eyes of the son. Comparing his father to a tiger, the narrator notes that he "spent most of this time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income." He blames him for the family's life of extremes, "with potfuls of meat on the stove during the good times and empty pots during the bad." And yet when he witnesses the esteem in which his father is held, "my heart would swell with pride and I'd vow that this was how I would do things, that he was the kind of man I wanted to be." The narrator's conflicted feelings play out perfectly in the scene of the father's humiliation: he initially disowns him as a result of the disgrace but is moved to tears by the way he "washed away the humiliation." To top it off the narrator discovers—though he doesn't understand the significance until later—that the antagonism between Lao Tan and his father is at least partially based on their rivalry over a woman named Wild Mule.

The story's weakness is that it feels like more a condensed novel extract, containing threads that lead far beyond the horizon of a short story. The pace in the first half is slow and meandering, with references to characters and situations that seem to have already been established. The rage of the narrator's mother, as she brandishes a meat cleaver and spews expletives, is presented so matter-of-factly that it seems almost comical.

Part of the problem may be Howard Goldblatt's translation, which often seems a bit tin-eared. Is "dark tool" really the best way to describe Lao Lan's penis in the urination scene? Is there no sense of irony whatsoever as the narrator remembers his father's "wise and courageous action" in the redemption scene? And what to make of the mangled syntax in the following passage:
With a sense of desperation, Father grabbed me by the neck with one hand and the seat of my pants with the other, and flung me up onto the wall only seconds before that damned Lao Lan took refuge behind him, grabbing his clothes so that he couldn't break free, and would screen him from the charging bull.
I generally avoid speculation about editorial motives, but given the author's recent Nobel Prize, it seems clear that this "story" is the result of a hasty effort to introduce TNY readers to a representative sample of Mo Yan's work. Despite the novelistic density and questionable translation, however, "Bull" redeems itself with complex characters, a quirky plot, and a poignant final scene.


Reader poll: I found "Bull" to be ___.

No comments:

Post a Comment