Pow! by Mo Yan, (trans. Howard Goldblatt). Seagull Books. 440pp., $27.50.
The announcement on October 11 that Chinese writer Mo Yan had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature was met with delight in some quarters and despair in others. Those unhappy with the award have focused on Mo Yan’s politics—or rather their perception of Mo Yan’s lack of a proper political consciousness—and talk about his politics has dominated editorial pages in the West, rather than talk about his art. In November, the 2009 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Romanian author Herta Mueller, characterized Mo Yan as a Party hack and went so far as to call the award “a catastrophe.” While Mueller’s histrionic and ad hominem dismissal of her fellow laureate sidesteps Mo Yan’s writing and begs to be refuted, a purely literary discussion of Mo Yan would beg too many questions. Mo Yan’s recent defense of “censorship” in a press conference in Sweden and his equivocating responses to direct questions about Liu Xiaobo have to be taken into consideration as well. Over the years, Mo Yan has consistently dodged politically sensitive questions—now, he has been thrust into the position of being a public intellectual, and he doesn’t want the job. Perry Link has addressed the difficulty and perilousness of Mo Yan’s position in his extremely thoughtful and well-informed piece in The New York Review of Books (December 6, 2012), and Link’s essay is the most nuanced politically engaged discussion of Mo Yan that I have seen to date. He sums up the situation as follows:
Chinese writers today, whether “inside the system” or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government. This inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo.
Staying on the good side of China’s autocratic one-party state apparatus is a tricky and dangerous game, and Link rightly cautions those of us who live in the relative safety of the West against judging writers like Mo Yan too harshly. Link also goes on to conclude that it would be “even more wrong to mistake the clear difference” between Liu and Mo Yan. I won’t enter into a debate about degrees of “wrong” here; suffice it to say, wrong is wrong.
Whatever one’s predilictions, discussion of politics vis a vis Mo Yan is unavoidable, but I will approach his politics by way of his fiction, rather than through his strikingly noncommittal public statements. After all, it’s the work we connect with when we pick up a novel, and it’s the work that garnered the Nobel Prize. Thus, in this review of the soon to be released translation of Mo Yan’s novel Pow!, I will talk about the story itself. I will not take Mo Yan to task for not being another Liu Xiaobo. Rather than criticizing Mo Yan for what he doesn’t do, I will focus on what Mo Yan can and does do in his fiction. It will be up to readers to decide whether or not that is morally or artistically sufficient.
Mo Yan’s politics are oblique, by design. and his experience exemplifies the ambiguous and tortuous space artists in China must occupy if they wish to avoid imprisonment. . His work is shot through with politics and history, and Pow! is no exception. (Interested readers will find an excerpt in the November 19, 2012 New Yorker magazine.) Translated by the masterful Howard Goldblatt, Pow! adds to the growing list of Mo Yan’s rollicking and ribald novels available in English—all translated by Goldblatt, who has championed Mo Yan’s work for decades and continues to do the author great justice in his earthy and vivid translations.
Written in 2003 and set during the Reform Era boom years of the 1990s, Pow! takes readers to Mo Yan’s native turf, rural Shandong province in China’s north. Mo Yan’s phantasmagorical fictions are often planted in the fertile soil of particular social ills—official greed and corruption in Country of Wine, the One Child policy in the forthcoming Frog—and from there they spread like vines in high summer to carpet every available surface, fastening themselves to and implicating every aspect of society. The ill that is central to Pow! is contaminated food, and in that regard the novel could have been ripped from today’s headlines, since food safety has been an ongoing concern among China’s citizens. But if it were only an Upton Sinclair-esque take-down of unhygienic and inhumane slaughtering practices, Pow! wouldn’t be a novel by Mo Yan. Muckraking is but one facet of this book, which, like most of the author’s other novels, is a lusty, blood-soaked and filth-encrusted indictment of Chinese society. And it doesn’t take much imagination to transpose elements of the story onto charged and sometimes taboo events in recent Chinese history.
Part fable, part fictionalized autobiography, Pow! is told from the point of view of the not altogether reliable Luo Xiaotong and hinges on the transformation of his home village from a farming community to Slaughterhouse Village. There’s more money in meat than in crops, and the entire village has found prosperity as a center for the killing and butchering of animals brought in from the surrounding countryside. The narrator’s father, Luo Tong, is as famed for his ability to judge the weight of livestock just by looking at them as he is for his incorruptibility—he refuses any and all gifts from livestock sellers, even something as trifling as a cigarette. He shows less self-control in sexual matters, however, and a good portion of the novel details the privations suffered by the narrator after his father runs off with another woman, the sexually supercharged Aunty Wild Mule, a favorite consort of village headman, Lao Lan. Luo Tong and Lao Lan’s rivalry over Aunty Wild Mule is an ongoing source of conflict in the novel.
Nobody has prospered more under this new economic activity than Lao Lan, who has discovered that by injecting water into the meat he takes to market, he can boost the weight of each cut of meat and realize greater profits. Other villagers notice he’s getting rich very fast, and soon the entire village is adulterating the meat they sell at market. In addition to the weight- and profit-boosting water, villagers add substances like formaldehyde and food coloring to give their product a longer shelf life or more appetizing appearance. Under Lao Lan’s aegis the villagers band together and open a massive slaughterhouse, but progress is interrupted when officials a level or two up learn of the corrupt practices and launch and investigation and crackdown. Lao Lan stages a burning of tainted meat at the grand opening of the slaughterhouse, but steps must be taken to insure profits or the slaughterhouse won’t break even. Injecting the meat is no longer an option, but our narrator, ever eager to advance himself, comes up with a solution: fill the animals with water before they’re slaughtered. Rather than hide this practice, Xiaotong suggests they call it “cleansing” and tout it as a guarantee of purity and good hygiene! The slaughterhouse scenes are among the novel’s most chilling and cruel, reminiscent of the showers at Nazi death camps. I don’t know if this was intentional on the author’s part, but the resonance is highly effective.
Determined to show that she can prosper without Xiaotong’s father, his mother Yang Yuzhen scrimps and saves. Her thrift extends to their diet, and she and Xiaotong subsist on a diet of grain and vegetables, with only the odd animal part thrown in. For Xiaotong, who is such a passionate carnivore that cuts of meat actually gesture and speak to him, this amounts to a starvation diet. Mo Yan’s vivid descriptions of Xiaotong’s hunger call to mind the famine of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), which the author experienced as a small child. Coupled with Xiaotong’s comparison of his mother’s house to a bun that only looked nutritious on the outside (echoing the Great Leap, with its inflated agricultural production figures and its Potemkin Village photo ops), these descriptions urge the reader to make historical connections.
Life with Xiaotong’s father also sounds suspiciously like life under Mao. Before his father left, they had “lived a life of extremes, with potfuls of meat on the stove during the good times and empty pots during the bad. In response to Mother’s curses, he’d say: ‘Any day now, very soon, the second land-reform campaign will begin, and you’ll thank me when it does.’” It’s worth noting here that the “second land reform” to which the father refers actually took place at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. The author may well be slyly alluding to that period.
Xiaotong’s mother’s self-denial contrasts starkly with his father’s self-indulgence in both food and sex. Xiaotong’s periodic visits to his “lazy, gluttonous” father and Aunty Wild Mule are orgiastic bouts of meat consumption, which leave the boy feeling sated and happy. In these scenes and others, sexuality and meat are conflated; the boy’s sexual cravings become almost indistinguishable from his appetite for food:
. . . the devilish attraction of meat created an insatiable appetite, the sort of effect that women have on men . . .
All of this lust comes across as unclean, just like the adulterated meat that makes the villagers rich; and the joy Xiaotong feels when he gorges himself on pork or other meats is usually followed by indigestion, if not outright nausea. After many trials and tribulation, Xiaotong swears off meat and decides to become a monk. He goes to the broken down temple outside of his hometown and tells his story to an old monk. The action cuts back and forth between the temple and flashbacks to Xiaotong’s childhood. The temple scenes are full of magic, reminiscent of traditional Chinese tales of the supernatural. Abandoned temples are a common motif in traditional stories, as is the fox fairy temptress that Mo Yan places at the temple.
As the story progresses, happenings at the temple become increasingly outlandish, starting with a freak lightening storm and culminating with murder, mayhem and lots of sex. In the temple scenes, a voluptuous supernatural woman is a recurrent distraction to the narrator, who is trying to demonstrate his newfound purity to the monk. The woman draws closer and closer to the narrator, who is obsessed with her body, especially her full and life-giving breasts, which he longs to suckle for both sexual gratification and food.
The women in Pow! tend to be either cold (like Xiaotong’s mother) or else highly sexualized and unattainable (the off-limits Aunty Wild Mule or the fantasy woman at the temple). The men vie for the women’s attention; while the women are both objects of lust and trophies, because the men are ultimately engaged in a power struggle with each other. Along with hunger, another of the novel’s major themes is virility (and its lack), and many erect penises are brandished in the course of this male competition. One character pees a noisome stream at another’s feet to show his dominance; another character pisses into a vat of meat stew as a way to stick it to his boss. Others still display their members in a show of how many women they can bed. This last trope culminates in a fantasy sequence where one alpha male copulates with 41 foreign women in rapid succession.
This book, like the bulk of Mo Yan’s other novels, is a social and political critique; the question is: how far-reaching is that critique? In Link’s view, by focusing on the lowest levels of government, Mo Yan leaves himself an out:
Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.
It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” Twenty years ago, when Chinese people had access only to state-sponsored news sources, most of them believed in such assurances; today, with the Internet, fewer do, but the message is still very effective. Writers like Mo Yan are clear about the regime’s strategy, and may not like it, but they accept compromises in how to put things. It is the price of writing inside the system.
Link’s points are well taken, but it can also be argued that Mo Yan leaves the door open for his works to be taken as a broader critique. Over two millenia of censorship, autocracy, and mortally dangerous factionalism have created in China a political and literary culture that fosters analogous thinking. One doesn’t have to make a great mental leap to extend the pattern of corruption to the higher echelons of power, especially in light of recent scandals, such as those that brought down the high-level officials Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua—implicated respectively in the cover-ups of Bo’s wife’s fatal poisoning of the family’s British fixer and the death of Ling’s son and one of his female companions in the spectacular crash of a Ferrari in Beijing last spring). Mo Yan’s fictions almost pale in comparison.
The extent of Mo Yan’s critique is, as Link observes, an open question. In his Nobel Lecture, Mo Yan states that “For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works.” If we look at Mo Yan’s writing, as the author urges, even pleads with us to do, what is he saying, and who does he speak for? The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6’s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there? And what of Xiaotong, the common man? He’s impotent. Pow! reaches its climax in a fantasy act of vengeance in which Xiaotong fires 41 shells at Lao Lan. Xiaotong lays waste to the village and slaughterhouse, but after each salvo Lao Lan emerges, Rasputin-like, virtually unscathed, until the very end. Lao Lan is a scion of the gentry who ran the village in dynastic times, and the narrator stresses this continuity. If Lao Lan exemplifies official corruption (and hence much of what’s wrong with the Chinese Communist Party), then official corruption will be hard to eradicate, at least not without destroying much of the country with it. It’s not clear from this book whether Mo Yan thinks that would be such a great loss.
As he states in his Nobel Lecture: “For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works.” For some that will not be enough, for others it is plenty.
Andrea Lingenfelter’s most recent translation is The Changing Room by Zhai Yongming (Zephyr Press), recipient of the 2012 Northern California Book Award for translation.
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