Mo Yan’s first publication in English since being awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature could not have a better title. As a word, complete with exclamation point, Pow! is a suitable descriptor for the furor presently surrounding its author. Mo Yan’s defence of state censorship as being “necessary,” a view expressed before the Nobel ceremony in December, has acted like a small bomb going off among fellow writers and freedom-of-expression advocates.
But Pow! serves even better as a bullet-brief précis of the novel itself, first published in China in 2003. For that, thank Mo Yan’s translator, American Howard Goldblatt. A literal rendering of the original title might be Forty-One Bombardments, a reference to the ultimate revenge taken by the main character on his village, using a Japanese mortar from the Second World War. By mashing the sense of a weapon firing (pao) in one language with the sound it might make (“pow”) in another, Goldblatt gives a feeling for the percussive qualities of a story told very loudly.
Great authors often require great translators to succeed fully in foreign languages. In this regard, Mo Yan has had a long and lucky career with English. Goldblatt’s superb work on behalf of his unruly, surreal fictions dates back to 1994’s Red Sorghum, the novel that had established Mo Yan as a striking new voice in Chinese fiction a few years earlier.
Pow! is exactly as frontal and explosive as its title suggests. At heart, it is also maddeningly elusive, a phantasmagoria of awesome vividness but frustrating thematic opacity. The novel reads like a satiric much ado about something very important – just don’t ask what that thing might be.
Slaughterhouse Village is a town in northeast China where “everywhere you looked there was meat on the hoof and meat on the slab, bloody chunks of meat and washed-clean chunks of meat…” Keen to partake of the new prosperity, villagers have abandoned farming for butchering and preparing beasts of every description. So much so, even local wild dogs “were so fat from eating spoilt meat that grease oozed from their pores.”
Luo Xiaotong is raised in Slaughterhouse Village, enjoying the annual Carnivore Festival and the Meat Appreciation Parade. He, too, “lives to eat meat,” and from childhood was willing to “go down on my knees and kowtow” to anyone who would give him a leg of fragrant lamb or a bowl of fatty pork. Ostrich, camel, donkey, cat and dog join the more predictable critter suspects among the dead and gleefully eaten.
As for the common practice of fraudulently injecting meat with water, to increase the weight, or formaldehyde, to keep it fresh, Luo has no qualms: “I’d rather eat unhealthy meat than healthy turnips,” he says. Later, the high-school dropout finds employment in a town abattoir, and pioneers a ghastly profit-making scheme of injecting the animals while they are still alive.
Before he embraces his role as bloody teenage capitalist, Luo endures a difficult childhood, especially once his father leaves his family for a woman named Wild Mule. Though Wild Mule may hold the secret to the best recipe for pig’s head – part of her erotic allure – poor Luo is subject to years of meat deprivation due to his mother’s fierce reaction to being abandoned.
Like all the characters in Pow!, “Mother” is a Bosch-broad grotesque. On meeting the small child her errant spouse fathered with Wild Mule, she knocks a mug out of her hand and slaps her: “There’s no water here for you, you little fox demon!”
Luo, himself a man-child, unfolds his ghastly, and possibly half-apocryphal tale at the request of Wise Monk Lan, who is interviewing him for a spot in serene Wutong Temple. Pow! alternates a direct narrative about life in Slaughterhouse Village with Luo’s time with the monk.
This dual narrative quickly devolves into an unhappy contrast, with the forced scenes in the monastery bordering on superfluous. A leaner, better novel struggles to escape the narrative fat encasing it.
Throughout the always exuberant pages of Pow!, a question nags: What exactly is the carnality, depravity and amorality all about? Mo Yan’s characters have always been drawn from the lower rungs of Chinese society, and he is bracingly frank about their earthy preoccupations with sex, food and money – and their parallel uninterest in politics, never mind in ideology.
In China, such unadorned insights can yet land a writer in trouble, something that Mo Yan, who has had his dust-ups with officialdom, may no longer have the stomach for. Or he might actually believe that girdling Chinese realities oblige a degree of state control over free speech.
But the truth remains that, starting with Red Sorghum, his literary nation has been elsewhere, away from the dictates, and dust-ups, of sanctioned China. Mo Yan country tills the rich soil of authentic Chinese folk history and deep character.
In this regard, his work is actually of a piece with exiled voices such as Ma Jian and Gao Xingjiang, with whom he has lately sparred over his awkward, and clearly reluctant, public utterances about censorship and the ongoing incarceration of another Chinese Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo.
In the 1980s, Ma and Gao intentionally wandered off the “grid” of official China to produce Red Dust and Soul Mountain, landmarks in contemporary Chinese literature. In a sense, Mo Yan has never been on any grid, except the one patterned by his own authentically wild, and innately subversive, imagination.
An even stronger affinity for his fiction might lie with the 14th-century classic Outlaws of the Marsh. Also known in English as Water Margin, this cherished epic cheers on a band of lusty brigands who live outside their corrupt society and live and die by their own rules. Generations of Chinese readers have identified with the frank appetites, and rugged moral codes, of these criminal antiheroes.
Now, sourcing Mo Yan’s bedrock literary affinities still won’t help shine much interpretive light on the often exasperating Pow! Even the satiric targets for a writer lauded for his satiric bite can be tough to identify.
In an afterword, Mo Yan declares that his story “isn’t especially meaningful.” As far as he is concerned, “narration is the goal, narration is the theme and narration is its construct of ideas.” If pressed by a restless reader – or reviewer – into elaborating, the author would settle for Pow! being “the story of a boy prattling on and on about a story.”
Not very helpfully, he adds: “It is not so much him narrating a story as it is a story narrating him.” Mo Yan goes on to repeat his refrain about politics – “I’ve always taken pride in my lack of ideology, especially when I’m writing” – and to assert that pure narrative is the key to “unlocking the scared door of fiction.” Many writers, he declares, understand about the key.
Hazarding a guess, it seems that Mo Yan is arguing that rollicking, uncensored narrative is its own consummate literary freedom, a Chinese literary sentiment at least as old as Outlaws of the Marsh. It is certainly the freedom he seems to value highest.
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran is the author of 10 books.