Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Seagull Books: 386 pp., $27.50
This year’s Nobel laureate in literature is an author who somehow manages to write books with brazenly political themes while living in a dictatorship. Mo Yan’s latest novel, “Pow!,” is a thinly veiled assault on the frayed moral fabric of that hyper-capitalist country known as Communist China.
The characters in “Pow!” do awful and disgusting things, most of them involving meat. The residents of Slaughterhouse Village love meat so much (be it donkey meat, Mongolian barbecue or “quail teppanyaki”) that they build a temple to it.
They fornicate in the presence of their Meat God. They also taint the meat they sell with poisonous preservatives and play all sorts of tricks on unwitting consumers to make more money from it.
“We live in an age that scholars characterize as the primitive accumulation of capital,” says the venal government boss of Slaughterhouse Village. “Just what does that mean? Simply that people will make money by any means necessary, and that everyone’s money is tainted by the blood of others.”
“Pow!” illustrates how Communist Party bosses have helped create this new China, a country where “moral behavior” is no longer “in fashion,” as the leader of Slaughterhouse Village puts it. And yet Mo, the public intellectual, basically curls up into a ball when it comes to directly criticizing those bosses.
A few days before accepting the Nobel Prize this month, Mo gave the Chinese regime a pass on censorship: It’s as necessary as airport screening, he said. And in a strange “Afterword” that appears in “Pow!” itself, he says his novel has no political intent: It’s merely a story about a boy who likes to tell stories and nothing else.
“Narration is his ultimate goal in life,” Mo writes of the protagonist of “Pow!,” who is a boy of 10 and then, in alternating chapters, a young man of 20. “What about ideology? About that I have nothing to say. I’ve always taken pride in my lack of ideology, especially when I’m writing.”
That’s all well and good for Mo Yan, the Chinese citizen, to say. And living in a country where there’s only one official “ideology” what else could he say?
But on the page, Mo Yan the novelist has produced in “Pow!” a work with a sly but obvious “ideological” bent. It portrays modern-day China as a place where government “thugs” in mirrored sunglasses and Audis, Cadillacs and Volvos run wild — and where even the most earnest and innocent citizen can get swept up in the culture of greed.
The wide-eyed innocent of “Pow!” is Luo Xiaotong. He is Mo’s Candide, and his love of meat is the motivation that drives the story forward.
In Xiaotong’s village, every conceivable kind of animal flesh is sold for human consumption. The locals leave the village’s surrounding fields fallow as they buy and sell meat, injecting it with water so it weighs more, and with formaldehyde so that it lasts longer.
“No one’s fool enough to work the fields,” says Xiaotong’s mother, mocking her husband’s desire to be a farmer. Xiaotong’s father dreams that the Communist authorities will decree a second land reform that will allow him to return to the time-honored and noble traditions of working the soil. But it’s a pipe dream because “it’s easier for people to get rich illegally,” Xiaotong’s mother says. Eventually the boss Lao Lan funnels the energy of the villagers into a meat-packing plant — first it’s a cooperative, later the leaders and managers become stockholders.
In alternating chapters, the now adult Xiaotong relates this story of Slaughterhouse Village to a Buddhist monk in a strange temple dedicated to the Meat God and to the “Wutong Spirit,” a god of virility with a human head and the swollen genitalia of a donkey.
As Xiaotong speaks to the monk of his past in Slaughterhouse Village — “I was a precocious child of wide experience, who saw many bizarre events and many strange people” — all sorts of even stranger things happen in and around the temple. Mo rises to extraordinary heights of weirdness in these passages, slipping into a kind of ribald revelry.
A “Carnivore Festival” unfolds outside, bringing rampaging ostriches into the temple, much vomiting, and the entry of a series of party officials and their acolytes. Mo’s descriptions of these men are dripping with populist contempt and satirical glee.
The officials, Xiaotong tells us, have transformed Slaughterhouse Village into a “new economic development zone” with a vast man-made lake and fancy new villas. “The men who live in them drive fancy cars — Mercedes, BMW, Buick, Lexus,” Mo writes. “The women parade their purebreds — Pekingese, poodles, shar peis, papillons.”
Mo has said that the novel draws heavily from his own childhood in rural China in the years after the Cultural Revolution and during the changes fostered by the market economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping.
In “Pow!,” Xiaotong’s austere village life is gradually overwhelmed by an influx of capital, technology and a tectonic shift in values. But Mo’s descriptions of these changes are rendered without any hint of sentimentality or nostalgia.
With the notable exception of Xiaotong’s father, all the villagers allow themselves to be swept up by the new, corporate-style modernity. They even allow an especially bright, ruthless 10-year-old boy to run their meatpacking plant, under the tutelage of the corrupt boss Lao.
“We have given him heavy responsibilities because he has room in his head for new and original ideas that can bring vitality to our plant,” Lao says. “When the plant makes a profit, the money winds up in your pockets and that equals good food and fine liquor.”
Mo the public figure is careful with words. But Mo the novelist slips past the censors by dressing up his cutting realism in absurd and fantastic clothing. In doing so, he’s embracing a long tradition that stretches from Cervantes to the German novelist Günter Grass.
I’m going to allow Mo the wiggle room he clearly needs because in the end his skill makes “Pow!” a wild, unpredictable ride — a work of demented and subversive genius.