I take little trips to the public library every single week. No matter how many books I already have on my night table and no matter how many books I keep on buying in the meanwhile. I just enjoy being in public libraries, scanning the shelves and picking up a book here and there, reading a few lines, writing down the title and putting it back in its place. I find it so relaxing and calming, especially since I live in a teeny tiny village and our public library is so small there are rarely more than a few visitors at a time.
During one of my weekly trips at the end of August, I picked up Mo Yan’s Frog and sat in a corner of the library for a while reading the first few pages. I didn’t know anything about the story or the author (except that he’s Chinese and, of course, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature – which surely is a good reason to check out a book). It took me just one chapter to fall in love with the story and decide I needed to borrow the book and take it home with me. It was surely a great idea.
The title “Frog” refers to the crying of newborn babies, their wa wa wa that sounds so much like the croaking of frogs. The story takes place in China, in the second half of the XX century, and follows the social and historical changes that happened during those years, from the Maoist era to the political developments of the last couple of decades. With one very interesting focus: China’s famous and controversial one-child policy.
The heart of the story, narrated by her nephew, is the life of Wan Xin, known as Gugu, a midwife in a rural village in northeast China. The first to receive proper scientific and medical training, in an area and age (the first half of the XX century) still attached to popular beliefs and traditional medicine and where neonatal deaths are still extremely high, she quickly becomes a star among the local population, helping thousands of mothers give birth to their babies safely and without complications.
As the government starts moving its attention onto population and growth control, Gugu’s loyalty and devotion to the communist party turns her into the strongest supporter of its new policies, being nominated head of the local family planning department and almost imposing a reign of terror in the region as she goes the extra mile to make sure no unauthorized births happen. Compulsory vasectomies for men, forced abortions for women who have already had one child, Gugu does everything in her power to comply to the party’s instructions, even engaging in what seem like modern-day witch hunts when some of the women refuse to terminate the pregnancy. She believes that the nation’s interest is what really matters, and that each individual’s interest – even her own – should be sacrificed for the wealth of the country. Everything has a cost, though: as she ages and gets old, the weight of what she has done gets heavier to carry and Gugu is haunted by the ghosts of all the babies that were aborted and that were never born because of her. The croaking of frogs makes her scream of terror, because it sounds like the first crying of babies.
Mo Yan tells a powerful story of loyalty and regret, of choices, especially those that you can’t make yourself, but are imposed on you by someone else. If you do what you’re told because you have no other choice, are the consequences your fault? Are you guilty, can you still sleep at night?
Frog gives a touching insight on the life in rural China, with its beliefs and traditions, and opens your eyes on its history and on events, such as the cultural revolution and the one-child policy, we have surely heard about but, I believe, rarely had time to properly and deeply think about. Narrated in a way that kind of makes you wonder if what you’re reading is the result of a weird dream, the brutality of history strikes and hits you even harder. Because no, it wasn’t just a scary dream. It was reality. And it happened just a few decades ago.