THE REPUBLIC OF WINE By Mo Yan Translated by Howard Goldblatt Arcade, 368 pages, $39.95
Last year, Harper's ran a witty lit-crit article by Jerry Leath Mills, citing dead mules as a litmus test as to whether a U.S. novel or writer was truly Southern. Mo Yan, the Chinese author of Red Sorghum, may have attained honorary citizenship in that cerebral Mule Nation with his weird novel The Republic of Wine.
This lush book has dead donkeys out the ying-yang; herds of braying donkeys are flayed and crippled and eaten (including genitalia) in all-donkey banquets. ("Walk slowly, enjoy the sights. Donkey Avenue is a mile long, with butcher shops on both sides. There are ninety restaurants and inns, and all of them use the carcasses of donkeys in their fare. . . . The epitome of donkey gourmandism. . . . Friends, talk about gourmet luck!")
This lewd and ludicrous novel starts off with an investigator travelling by coal truck to check out rumours of cannibalism (braised baby boys with no MSG) in Liquorland, a province in China where visitors and local dignitaries and officials and tavern owners drink until they float up to the ceiling or slide indecorously under the table while a dwarf vows to have sex with every pretty girl in Liquorland.
Think David Lynch in China. Think Ha Jin meets Hunter Thompson. The smell of alcohol fumes from the pages of this layered, lascivious book, this wild ride on a drunken rollercoaster.
The Republic of Wine is not a traditional book. It's a hallucinatory crossbreed, with an inventive, mutated structure. The investigator's account is broken repeatedly by letters and stories sent to Mo Yan by an adoring younger writer in Liquorland, raising the question: Who exactly is the author here? At times Mo Yan is a character in his own book, struggling to write a book about Liquorland. We're informed Mo Yan is ugly and beady-eyed and unpleasant, a "rascal" and an "evil genius."
"Mo Yan doth protest too much," reads a letter from One-Pint Li, the younger writer and a PhD candidate in Liquor Studies. The narrator (is it Mo Yan?) expresses remorse over Mo Yan's treatment of his character the investigator who dies in a privy, à la Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The narrator says, "This Mo Yan disgusts me. That's the truth." Our narrator claims Mo Yan's brain "is aswarm with bizarre events: apes distilling liquor and dragging down the moon; the investigator wrestling with a dwarf; golden-threaded swallows making nests from saliva; the dwarf dancing on the naked belly of a beautiful woman; a doctor of liquor studies fornicating with his own mother-in-law; a female reporter taking pictures of a braised infant; royalties; trips abroad; cursing people out. . . . What pleasure can he get from the jumble of thoughts filling his mind, I wonder?" Obviously, Mo Yan has a postmodern yen, but this should not trouble traditional readers. The Republic of Wine is a sensual book about Falstaffian appetites, about sex, food and booze. It's about global opiates and consumerism gone crazy, about strange days and weird scenes inside the Mount Luo coalmine.
Before plunging into the fatal privy, our investigator falls into trying labyrinths and bureaucratic underworlds worthy of Kafka or Dostoyevsky. Other influences might include Swift, Melville's darkly comic The Confidence Man,Faulkner, Alisdair Gray, Robert Coover, the magic realists, Nabokov, Gorki, Gogol and older Chinese sources. Mo Yan is a human vacuum cleaner, taking it all in, a rascal with a huge appetite, consuming in the best sense of the word.
There is a question, as with any translation: How much of the tone is because of an American translation? Consider these phrases: Sank you belly much; pedal to the metal; no dice; sort of like; go with the flow; you're dead meat. They are odd or jarring at times in a Chinese book. What were these colloquialisms in the original text? How much of The Republic of Wine is filtered through the Republic of Charlton Heston and Oprah Winfrey?
The Republic of Wine is not a perfect novel. Its later chapters lose steam and the picaresque pace slows, but I was compelled to read on. It's a seductive, dipso, dizzying tome. The end is Joycean and run-on. One expects Molly Bloom to peek out with potted meat, but Mo Yan anticipates this: "Some will say I'm obviously imitating the style of Ulysses in this section Who cares I'm drunk."
If Joyce is stream of consciouness, then perhaps Mo Yan is stream of unconsciousness, making fun of convention and bureaucracy and the Cultural Revolution and greed and privatization, making fun of knights errant and devils and demons and boozehounds and lotharios, in fact, making fun of everything in the world, including himself. Mark Anthony Jarman teaches fiction at the University of New Brunswick. His most recent book was the story collection 19 Knives .