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By Mo Yan

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Translated by Howard Goldblatt

Arcade, 540 pages, $32.95

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out is the story of Ximen Nao, a landlord who gets murdered after the Communist revolution in China. But his troubles are just beginning; Ximen Nao has been tortured in hell for two years by the King of the Underworld, Lord Yama, who is attempting to get him to admit to alleged transgressions while on Earth. Ximen Nao proclaims his innocence after enduring all the tortures that hell can come up with and, finally, it dawns on Lord Yama that he is persecuting an innocent man.

He decides to send Ximen Nao back to Earth. But he soon discovers that Lord Yama has tossed him a curveball. Sure, Ximen is back, but he is now in the humbling form of a donkey. We travel with the ass through remote Northeast Gaomi Township in China's Shandong province, and discover how the revolution has affected life here, and, one assumes, all of China. Ximen Nao - if he didn't already have his suspicions after being shot - finds that things are not going very well a few years after Mao Zedong's land-reform movement. The independent and wealthy are being persecuted and murdered, and Ximen Nao's widow is abused by revolutionists who believe she is hiding her late husband's money. Things go on like this, with Ximen witnessing the fate of friend and foe alike.

As a donkey, he proves himself to be both brave and steadfastly loyal to his human master. But this does not save him from being ripped apart by a band of starving peasants, and his soul is sent hurtling back to the underworld, once again to meet Lord Yama. Things do not get any better for him, however; Lord Yama sends him right back to Earth, this time as an ox.

Author Mo Yan gets a lot right in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. The work explores China from the revolution to the new millennium, with Ximen Nao's personal life and struggles as important to the narrative as the bigger transformations changing the country. Mixed up in everything is his search for love ... and mixed up with that is Mo Yan's peculiar brand of humour. Ximen, as a donkey, muses: "Humans are overweening creatures, believing themselves to have raised amorous feelings to the greatest heights, while, in fact, nothing can stir up a man's passions like a female donkey."

Though the novel is quite graphic at times, Mo does not make us feel that we are participating in needlessly excessive violence.

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There is something important going on here: the novelist as archivist, the novelist as the light of reason. In this sense, Mo fights along a handful of political writers like Solzhenitsyn, Koestler and Orwell, though his work is not without snags.

Beat your donkey to death (or ox, or pig, or monkey, or dog) and bring him back in another form to undergo the same drill, and you start flirting with redundancy.

That's not to say that Life and Death is redundant, but it's certainly winking at the concept. Whereas Orwell and company wrote succinctly in their best fiction, Mo prefers a more expansive approach, making the novel both more involved and less trenchant.

Still, after a couple of reincarnations, we more or less get it. All this being said, the book is complex but rewarding. It is not gorgeously written - or at least not gorgeously translated - but the storytelling can be riveting and the book is worth the price of admission simply for its tour of China.

Above all, though, it is Mo's ability to weave intimate relationships around his main character through every cycle of death and reincarnation that kept me turning the pages.

The song might remain the same, but the dance changes with the decades as we move from the early stages of the revolution up through the subsequent years of China's rocky history, and Mo is fantastic at capturing the country's nuances.

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Paul Bachmeier's most recent incarnation is a freelance writer living in Thunder Bay.

A living hell

My story begins on January 1, 1950. In the two years prior to that, I suffered cruel torture such as no man can imagine in the bowels of hell. Every time I was brought before the court, I proclaimed my innocence in solemn and moving, sad and miserable tones that penetrated every crevice of Lord Yama's Audience Hall and rebounded in layered echoes, not a word of repentance escaped my lips though I was tortured cruelly, for which I gained the reputation of an iron man. I know I earned the unspoken respect of many of Yama's underworld attendants, but I also know that Lord Yama was sick and tired of me. So to force me to admit defeat, they subjected me to the most sinister form of torture hell had to offer: they flung me into a vat of boiling oil, in which I tumbled and turned and sizzled like a fried chicken for about an hour. Words cannot do justice to the agony I experienced until an attendant speared me with a trident and, holding me high, carried me up to the palace steps. He was joined by another attendant, one on either side, who screeched like vampire bats as scalding oil dripped from my body onto the Audience Hall steps, where it sputtered and produced puffs of yellow smoke. With care, they deposited me on a stone slab at the foot of the throne, and then bowed deeply.

"Great Lord," he announced, "he has been fried."

From Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

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