Pow! by Mo Yan, transl. Howard Goldblatt (Seagull Books - December, 2012)
Pow! by Mo Yan, first published in China ten years ago, has now, due to popular demand, been translated into English. Above all, Mo Yan and his work are highly controversial and not just because of the writing’s daring aesthetic, which was described by the Nobel Prize committee as “hallucinatory realism”, but also due to the novel’s underlying convictions (or lack of), which has raised questions about Mo Yan’s position in the wider political debate about free speech in China.
Apparently the title of this novel derives from ‘Powboy’ i.e. someone who likes to boast or lie. But of course the title also evokes comic-book qualities. Arguably Pow! can be seen as a bomb-shell that has gone off, but what was its target, has it backfired or has it been nothing but a fireworks display on the page?
The story is effectively the confession of a meat eater named Xiaotong. It’s a monologue in two parts: what happened to him when he was a child and, ten years later, as he sits in the Wutong Temple and tells his ordeal to a Buddhist monk in the hope of joining the order. The process of narrating and the past that is being narrated are cleverly juxtaposed to create a comparison. It illustrates village-life before and after the United Meatpacking Plant Ltd. was founded and became the seat of corruption.
We learn how the boy’s birthplace of Slaughterhouse Village and its inhabitants evolved over the years. Farmers and butchers always felt forced to enhance their profit-margin as best they could: feeding their livestock hormones and antibiotics, smoking the meat with sulphur, adding water, preservatives, formaldehyde and artificial colourings to boost shelf-life. But back in the beginning some villagers were more equal and upright than others. Xiaotong’s father was respected for being incorruptible. He had however, another character flaw and left Xiaotong’s mother for the fun-loving Aunty Wild Mule. Xiaotong’s intrepid, frugal and cunning mother deprives the boy of what he so desperately craves - meat - so she can save up for a house. But eating turnips only fuels the boy’s hunger. Then the corrupt Village Head Lao Lan sets up a large slaughterhouse. The entire village is bullied into giving up their independent businesses and joining the plant. When Xiaotong’s father sheepishly returns a few years later, he has no choice but to bow to the corrupt regime. He starts working for Lao Lan and so does Xiaotong’s mother. Although everyone is involved in a crooked stew of lies and unlawful activities, there is plenty of money and meat to go round. Xiaotong develops such an intimate relationship with meat, it actually speaks to him.
Normally fables have a happy ending but this one ends in a bloodbath. Beware, dining tables can turn. I suppose, meat here stands for all the things we crave yet cannot have unless we are prepared to kill for them, and which, in time, kill us. But what can be taken seriously given that Xiaotong is set up as a liar?
At first we can’t fail to notice Mo Yan’s stunning scope of imagination, the focused embellishment of the meat theme that runs through the entire fable, the dazzling descriptions of slaughter and cooking grease, the charming exaggerations, the humorous yet poignant confrontations between characters that seem much like caricatures, the resourceful narration with always new and unexpected twists, the seductive voice and crafty weaving of expectations. Mo Yan really pulls out all the stops and knows how to string the reader up like he might string up a roasting joint. Reading Mo Yan is like listening to Wagner, getting carried away by bold musical scores and heroic sounds, and afterwards we can’t help wondering and worrying if the exuberance was fuelled by noxious ideology. The Nobel Prize committee didn’t seem to think such considerations matter.
Jim Leach compared Mo Yan to Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller. But Mo Yan seems also inspired by Berthold Brecht. Much in Pow! echoes Mother Courage in its attack on capitalism. (Mo Yan’s protagonist calls capitalism ‘primitive accumulation’ i.e. grab what you can and f**k everyone else.) Mo Yan’s hallucinatory festival scenes are reminiscent of German Expressionism. His picaresque narrator is like something out of Dickens. There is also a hint of Voltaire’s Candide, Animal Farm and Struwwelpeter (aka Shockheaded Peter). By Mo Yan’s own admission Pow! is indebted to The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Interesting, given that Grass is famous for having been in the Hitler Youth and later keenly supported grassroots socialism, thus bowing to whoever happens to be in power.
Mo Yan is in fact a pen name which translates as ‘don’t speak’, an intriguing name for a writer. According to Mo Yan himself, he has no political agenda and is just interested in narrating a story, yet his work oozes social commentary and political attitude. Clearly, he does speak but maybe he only says what the Chinese elite likes to hear. He does attack corruption and capitalism, exposes village officials as small-time criminals, ridicules religion yet shies away from mentioning the Party. To use Mo Yan’s own terminology, there is an overwhelming sense of ‘perverted logic’ to the work. We normally assume avant-garde literature would sport a free spirited demeanour but here we have someone incredibly original who is utterly stunned by the values of the status-quo. Maybe the animals Mo Yan so brilliantly depicts provide a clue for his success; don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
That said Mo Yan’s merit as a craftsman is undeniable. Ten years on Pow! is still relevant and pushes some buttons in regard to the recent meat scandal that has befallen our shores. I suggest that horsemeat lasagne has made us highly susceptive to this book’s cutting analysis of the meat trade in general. Clearly, reading Pow! will set your teeth on edge, maybe not just when it comes to the carnivorous topic. If you have finally vowed to become a vegetarian and give up meat for good, the vivid writing in this novel will encourage you to keep your promise.