Throughout history, and across cultures, we encounter myriad competing narratives about women’s fertility and the attempts to control it: on the one hand, myths and fairy tales telling of miracle births (for example, in The Snow Child) and the agonies of unwanted pregnancies on the other. In China’s controversial one-child policy, parental ambitions are set against government responsibility for the welfare of the population, making this a subject ripe for fiction, and perhaps with particular fascination for readers in the more individualistic West. Following years of famine, there’s a certain logic to the attempt to curtail population growth, yet it brings misery, confusion and untimely death through enforced late abortions to the peasantry. Gugu, an obstetrician previously lauded for her skills in bringing healthy babies into the world, is now vilified as the instrument of governmental edict (p142-4):
For me, this was the core of the story, raising universal questions about the rights of individuals versus the needs of the majority; the gap between intention and outcome in politics; the pressures on loyal functionaries tasked with implementing unpopular decisions; as well as the difference between the sexes in the impact of fertility and its absence. Yet it was lost within a complex structure which distanced this reader from the emotional impact and made the novel twice as long as it needed to be.
Having taken early retirement and moved back to the countryside from Beijing, Xiaopao has decided to write a play about the life of his aunt Gugu. But before he can do so, he feels compelled to spell out his thoughts about his family’s history in a series of letters addressed to a celebrated, but unidentified, Japanese writer. While the length of the sections counteract the sense that one is reading a novel intended for someone else, it’s an irritating format as the narrator’s narcissism comes to the fore (p121):
With fear and trepidation I read the high praise over the material on Gugu in the letter I sent. You said that a bit of reorganisation could turn it into a publishable novel, but I’m not so sure. First, publishers may not welcome a novel on this theme or topic. Second, if it is published, it could seriously upset Gugu … As for me, I am using this epistolary narrative form as a way to atone for my sins and find a way to lessen their impact. Your comforting remarks and reasoning have eased my mind considerably
making this reader wish that he had submitted his extracts to a more critical editor. Since the narrator seems more interested in the various trajectories of his schoolmates than in the life of his aunt, and given that he’s also played his part in the damage wrought by the one-child policy, I’m not sure why he feels the need to hide his fascination with his own story behind his account of the obstetrician. But regular readers will already be aware of my impatience with elaborate rationales for a first-person narrative.
I confess I didn’t read the nine-act play appended to the novel, deciding I was satisfied as I was likely to get with an ending that takes us right into a very modern (and pertinent to the West) dilemma with the question of surrogacy. Mo Yan was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature (which is perhaps why I feel justified in my hyper-criticism). This English translation of Frog is by Howard Goldblatt and published by Hamish Hamilton who provided my review copy.
What are your thoughts about China’s one-child policy? Can you recommend any other novels on the topic?