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.
On the one hand, that’s sort of true . . . Pow! consists of a story within a story: in the present, Xiaotong is relating to a monk his life story, while witnessing a host of very surreal events—a meat celebration gone awry and ending with bunches of dead ostriches, a man boning 41 women in a row, etc.—with the goal of confessing in order to become a monk. By contrast, the story he tells of growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, where his dad runs away with the town floozy, and the village leader teaches everyone to maximize profits by pumping their meat full of water and formaldehyde, is much more realistic . . . sort of.
I don’t want to spoil too much for readers, but the core plot of Pow! is a rather tragic and disturbing story involving Xiaotong’s parents and their relationship to village leader, Lao Lan. Told in a straightforward, realistic fashion, it would resemble a soap opera, filled with eating contests, battling egos, poverty, sex, and death. Oh, and meat.
The brilliance of this novel—and the reason it deserves comparisons to so many great authors—is the way in which this tragic story is filtered through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. (Granted, Xiaotong is a 20-something when he’s telling the monk his life story, but his mind has never really progressed, and his myth-making is more like a pre-teen than a fully-formed adult.) As a result, the story gets pulled and twisted out of shape, and what is “real” becomes a lot less certain—especially when Xiaotong keeps insisting on his story’s veracity:
Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot ‘Powboys,’ but every word in what I’m telling you is the unvarnished truth.
It’s not like an unreliable narrator is anything new in literature, and post-Nabokov, it’s almost second-nature as a reader to try and see through to what a narrator isn’t saying to really get what’s going on. But I really like the way in which these two narratives—one which centers around the construction of a “Meat God” statue (presumably made in honor of Xiaotong) and functions in a sort of timeless, surreal zone; one that centers around Xiaotong’s adventures and war with Lao Lan, and is filled with boasts and impossible feats (a 12-year-old eating 5lbs of meat, the firing of 41 mortar shells) transforming Xiaotong’s life into something much grander than it really is.
In terms of the translation, Howard Goldblatt is one of the best. He’s translated a ton of Chinese books, including all of Mo Yan’s earlier works. The book reads remarkably well in English—it’s by turns lyrical, funny, and vulgar. (The number of “Fuck your old woman!” type statements in here is remarkable and AWESOME.)
The thing that I’m really curious about, from a translation perspective, is the number of adages and sayings in this book. They pop up on most every page,
‘People aren’t mountains, they can change . . .’ Mother’s face grew red as she struggled to hold on to her temper.
‘Except it’s easier to change the course of a river than a person’s nature.’ Mother’s cousin was intent on making things hard for her.
Sun Changsheng was the one who snapped first. ‘That’s enough!’ he growled at his wife. ‘If your mouth itches, rub it against the wall. You fart three times for every time you kowtow. Your good deeds don’t make up for your bad behaviour.” [. . .]
I’m planning on using this book in my spring class, and having my class mark down as many of these as they can find, but trust me, there are hundreds. Which interests me, because I wonder how literal they are compared to the Chinese (the one about a horse not grazing backwards is one of my favorites), or how much Goldblatt changed them to convey the same proverb quality in English.
Aside from a hundred-page section that gets bogged down in meat desiring, meat eating, and meat everything, this is a really fun and enjoyable book to read—one that raises interesting narrative questions at the very end when, quite literally, everything explodes.