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Latest Review: "Pow!" by Mo Yan

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote (after a very long travel experience, so forgive me) about Mo Yan’s Pow!, which is coming out from Seagull in Howard Goldblatt’s translation.

Here’s the opening:

The first book by recent Nobel Laureate, Mo Yan, to come out in English translation, Pow! is guaranteed to get a lot of attention, especially considering the recent hubbub about his relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, to censorship, to the plight of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo. A lot of reviewers will scrutinize Pow! and its relationship to governmental power—on the one hand, doing what village leader Lao Lan wants really improves one’s status, on the other, it leads directly to tragedy—and will likely focus on the relationship between this novel, first published in China in 2012, and his earlier work.

Since I don’t feel qualified to comment on any of that—other than to say censorship is bad, but stances falling in gray areas are intellectually intriguing to me, and that I hope to read more of his works in the not-too-distant future—I’m going to try and focus on the book’s structure and its inherent trickiness, beginning with what made me really want to read this particular Mo Yan book—the jacket copy.

This might seem like a digression, but bear with me. First off, here’s a bit from the copy for The Garlic Ballads, one of Mo Yan’s most admired works:

“Banned in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, this epic novel by one of China’s leading writers portrays a people driven to smash the rigid confines of their ancient traditions. [. . .] The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government encourages them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as easy as they believed. [. . .] The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love and the struggle to maintain that love int he face of overwhelming obstacles.”

OK, fine. Sounds like it’ll be pretty social-realist, anti-government, rural, and commonplace. Now, check Pow!:

“A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But through this tale of sharp hatchets, bat water, and a rusty Second World War-mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz, or Jakov Lind, Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.”

Jakov Lind?! Comic?! That’s not what I would’ve guessed given the copy found on The Garlic Ballads (or any of his other previous works). Obviously, if I’m going to choose a work to start with, it’ll be the one name-checking Gombrowicz and an Open Letter author . . . That said, opening Pow!, I still expected to encounter a much more conventional novel than, say, Ferdydurke.

Click here to read the full thing.



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