7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jonathan Stalling, an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma University specializing in Modern-Contemporary American and East-West Poetics, Comparative Literature, and Translation Studies. He is also the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today magazine and book series.

Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan is nothing short of astonishing. With over three dozen volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his credit, Howard Goldblatt is widely considered one of the most prolific and influential translators of our time. Authors he has translated include a wide range of twentieth-century novelists and major figures of the post-Mao era. In 1999, his translation of Notes of a Desolate Man (with Sylvia Lin) by Chu Tien-wen was selected as Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association. Three of his recent translations—Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), The Boat to Redemption (Su Tong), and Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu, also with Sylvia Lin)—have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He has received two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2009, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the only English-language translator of Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Sandalwood Death marks a new level of accomplishment for Goldblatt because of its complex aural formalism and this is why it deserves to win this prize. Sandalwood Death was written in the form of an opera and has long been considered one of Mo Yan’s most ambitious work—the famously speedy and prolific writer took over five years to complete the book. Set in turn-of-the-century China at the dawn of the boxer Rebellion, Sandalwood Death explores the violent intersection of unstoppable global forces on the scale of vulnerable, individual lives. The novel—part thriller, part love story—weaves together several strands of a single family: Sun Meiniang is the daughter of Sun bing, a well-known folk opera star and a leader of the boxer Rebellion in Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s ancestral home. Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is the Empire’s most accomplished state executioner, a master of the killing arts (he claims to have cut off more than 1,000 heads) who is called to perform a ritualized execution of Sun bing so viscerally precise and grisly it must be read to be believed. As an allegory of the dismemberment of the Qing Dynasty body politic itself, Mo Yan’s tour-de-force exploration of the public spectacle of executions is carried out on the most intimate level, deeply affecting characters that readers can both identify with and feel a great deal for.

While reviews of Sandalwood Death have marveled at the novel’s powerful narrative, few have explored how Mo Yan’s novel skillfully assumes the form of a Shandong folk opera. Most chapters open with formal arias with metered and rhymed language which Goldblatt translates faithfully capturing both the aural and semantic sinews that anchor each chapter into the operatic whole. In the chapter “Divine Altar,” the narrator’s voice weaves in and out of the protagonist’s plaintive and wrathful singing. In this climatic chapter, we find Sun bing, a famous Cat Opera performer, in shock after having witnessed the gruesome murder of his wife and most of his children at the hands of German soldiers. Climbing down from a tree on the far side of a river, he takes up a club and plunges into a fierce opera virtuoso rendered masterfully by translator Howard Goldblatt, who follows the original Chinese operatic form with such care that the chapter could be performed out loud. Just as in the Chinese original, Mo Yan’s narration continues in the standard font while Sun bing’s fierce Sprechgesang (a form of intonation between speaking and singing) is rendered in italics: “He struck out with his club, pointing east and striking west, pointing south and hitting north, shattering bark. Willows wept. You German devils! You, you, you cruelly murdered my wife and butchered my children~~this is a blood debt that will be avenged—bong bong bong bong bong—Clang cuh-lang clang Only revenge makes me a man. 德国鬼子啊! 你你你杀妻灭子/好凶残~~这血海深仇/一定要报——咣咣咣咣咣——里格咙格/里格咙——咙要报—/非儿男.” From the meaningless vocables (indicating folk opera instrumentation) to the rhythm and rhyme, the English carries the vitality of the original. In short, this is a stunning translation of a historic novel.

Most translators of Chinese poetry shy away from the challenge of replicating such formal elements, but Goldblatt does so consistently through this 500 page novel which marks it as not only one of the great translations from the Chinese in recent times, but one of the great translations of our time.

3 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m pretty bummed about this one. And my secret hope of hopes is that Mo Yan’s Pow! didn’t make the list because everyone is so enamored with Sandalwood Death, which we officially decided to make eligible for the 2014 BTBA.

I reviewed this novel a couple months back, and will be using it in my “Translation & World Literature” class later this spring as part of our six-title “Best Translated Book” class rumble. And I personally think it could win.

Anyway, here’s a bit of my review:

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.”

Uh-huh.

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.

It’s not like Mo Yan needs more recognition after winning the Nobel Prize, but I would like him to get some recognition as a literary writer instead of as a Chinese writer simply because the first puts the emphasis on his wild narrative stylings and the latter makes his works and position as a writer all about politics. And that sucks.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95

Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”

I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.

I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.

The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.

The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.

For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)

I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95

A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.

“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “

All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.

That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .

So yes, if your sister/mother/grandmother/aunt is done with that other series, recommend 18% Gray to them. Besides, Zack is WAY hotter than E.L. James. (Although he might not be quite as loaded.)

27 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

27 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Uh-huh.

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.

11 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature the other day, giving this acceptance speech:

In the fall of 1984 I was accepted into the Literature Department of the PLA Art Academy, where, under the guidance of my revered mentor, the renowned writer Xu Huaizhong, I wrote a series of stories and novellas, including: “Autumn Floods,” “Dry River,” “The Transparent Carrot,” and “Red Sorghum.” Northeast Gaomi Township made its first appearance in “Autumn Floods,” and from that moment on, like a wandering peasant who finds his own piece of land, this literary vagabond found a place he could call his own. I must say that in the course of creating my literary domain, Northeast Gaomi Township, I was greatly inspired by the American novelist William Faulkner and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. I had not read either of them extensively, but was encouraged by the bold, unrestrained way they created new territory in writing, and learned from them that a writer must have a place that belongs to him alone. Humility and compromise are ideal in one’s daily life, but in literary creation, supreme self-confidence and the need to follow one’s own instincts are essential. For two years I followed in the footsteps of these two masters before realizing that I had to escape their influence; this is how I characterized that decision in an essay: They were a pair of blazing furnaces, I was a block of ice. If I got too close to them, I would dissolve into a cloud of steam. In my understanding, one writer influences another when they enjoy a profound spiritual kinship, what is often referred to as “hearts beating in unison.” That explains why, though I had read little of their work, a few pages were sufficient for me to comprehend what they were doing and how they were doing it, which led to my understanding of what I should do and how I should do it.

What I should do was simplicity itself: Write my own stories in my own way. My way was that of the marketplace storyteller, with which I was so familiar, the way my grandfather and my grandmother and other village old-timers told stories. In all candor, I never gave a thought to audience when I was telling my stories; perhaps my audience was made up of people like my mother, and perhaps it was only me. The early stories were narrations of my personal experience: the boy who received a whipping in “Dry River,” for instance, or the boy who never spoke in “The Transparent Carrot.” I had actually done something bad enough to receive a whipping from my father, and I had actually worked the bellows for a blacksmith on a bridge site. Naturally, personal experience cannot be turned into fiction exactly as it happened, no matter how unique that might be. Fiction has to be fictional, has to be imaginative. To many of my friends, “The Transparent Carrot” is my very best story; I have no opinion one way or the other. What I can say is, “The Transparent Carrot” is more symbolic and more profoundly meaningful than any other story I’ve written. That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output. Not one of all the fictional characters I’ve created since then is as close to my soul as he is. Or put a different way, among all the characters a writer creates, there is always one that stands above all the others. For me, that laconic boy is the one. Though he says nothing, he leads the way for all the others, in all their variety, performing freely on the Northeast Gaomi Township stage. [. . .]

My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.

Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.

Prattling on and on about my own work must be annoying, but my life and works are inextricably linked, so if I don’t talk about my work, I don’t know what else to say. I hope you are in a forgiving mood.

The stuff about his writing, etc., is decent enough, but these few paragraphs towards the end are a bit more intriguing:

The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:

For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these. [. . .]

I am a storyteller.

Telling stories earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.

So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.

As is detailed in today’s issue of Publishing Perspectives, the main controversy regarding Mo Yan and the Nobel is his take on the censorship imposed by the Chinese Government. One of the most outspoken critics of Mo Yan is fellow Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, who said it was a “catastrophe” that Mo Yan received the award. From Publishing Perspectives:

Müller went on to criticize Mo for hand-copying a Mao Zedong speech, in which the deceased ruler stated that all art and culture should serve the Communist government, and for doing little to help the plight of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

OK, so onto that Liu Xiaobo bit. This article from The Guardian really brings home this issue:

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot. [. . .]

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot.

Obviously this is something that doesn’t sit well with most Western liberal, free-speech loving folks. Again, Publishing Perspectives puts this best:

Censorship appears to be simply indefensible, but like many things between East and West, there may be a disconnect. The Chinese themselves prevaricate on the issue, sometimes tolerating dissent so long as it stays on the fringes and does not disturb the masses. When it comes to book publishing in China, the government controls access to ISBNs, printing, distribution…the entire publishing production chain. Independent publishing may be nascent, but it is hardly robust or much of an alternative. Most Chinese authors who wish to publicly criticize the country simply leave (if they can), which in turn opens them up to criticism that they have lost touch about the country and have no authority on which to comment about it. Those who stay, like Mo Yan, make compromises.

Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party says censorship is necessary to govern a sprawling nation. But what goes unsaid is that censorship is also a hammer, one which enables them to beat down opposition and sustain power. After all, knowledge is power and if you control the means of access to knowledge, you control the power. Plain and simple.

So, yeah. What’s curious though is this review of Pow! in which Andrea Lingenfelter complicates the view that Mo Yan is a government stooge:

If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. 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 A6s 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?

In the end, hopefully the art transcends the artist? I mean, I do know a lot of artists I’d rather not know, especially since it reflects on their work. And I’m personally still interested in reading more of his works—especially Pow!. That said, this is a blow to the credibility of the Swedish Academy (in my opinion), which is definitely not what it needs . . .

4 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The reviews are one of the standard features in every issue of Quarterly Conversation. and there’s a ton of great pieces in this new issue. These are just a few of the highlights.

Taylor Davis-Van Atta on Stig Sæterbakken’s Siamese, translated from the Norwegian by Sean Kinsella and Self-Control, translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz:

Self-Control, Sæterbakken’s follow-up to Siamese, centers around Andreas Feldt, a middle-aged man who, filled with an intense and unknowable sense of desperation, is driven to test the validity of his existence and its influence on others around him. The novel opens with Feldt sharing a meal with one of his two estranged daughters. During this encounter, without “the slightest notion of an appropriate thing to say,” Feldt inexplicably claims that he is divorcing his wife. This lie seemingly has no effect upon the daughter, but it has a profound impact on Andreas. Confused and disoriented by his own lie, as well as by his daughter’s indifference to the news, Feldt wanders back out into the world, engaging in a series of encounters with acquaintances, family members, and strangers in which he aggressively tries to exercise influence, if not control, over the lives of others—and over his own life.

At the heart of Self-Control is Feldt’s pervasive repression. We never learn precisely what he is repressing, but its traumatic nature is betrayed by his preoccupation with a missing girl whose disappearance is continually mentioned in the headlines. Feldt clearly identifies with her disappearance—perhaps with her invisibility, perhaps merely with the tragedy of her likely fate—and in fact it is the only conduit through which he seems able to experience his world. Toward everything else he is stubbornly reticent.

Feldt’s outbursts, then, are unpredictable, violent and ultimately impotent, serving only to make him increasingly aware of his own powerlessness. There are only two options Feldt seems to recognize: he can either fully identify with intolerable despair, the cause of which he refuses to locate, or he can resign himself to invisibility. The novel’s big reveal—the only piece of information that matters, in a way, to the novel and its narrator—is withheld until its final words, but the revelation does not provide clarity or resolution; quite to the contrary, the book’s ending complicates Feldt’s choice, along with all that we have come to understand about him.

In stylistic counterpoint to Siamese, the prose in Self-Control is intentionally flat, featureless. The novel is essentially unquotable, its slow narrative an often painfully meticulous depiction of the very smallest operations of Feldt’s consciousness, most of which he’s unwilling to acknowledge, and of the suffering he experiences in avoiding pain. Like a Cassavetes film, Self-Control unfolds scene by scene with characters trying desperately to express forces inside them that they cannot account for, or, in Feldt’s case, even acknowledge. Sæterbakken’s ambiguous characters change with every page; they refuse easy patterns of behavior that would make them too recognizable, too untrue. They are often repugnant, but Sæterbakken saw such honesty as part of the duty of art and literature.

And one of my personal favorite reviews, Madeleine LaRue on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz:

Although Shishkin’s prodigious talent has been recognized for many years in his native Russia, as well as in Germany and France, until now English readers have only had access to “The Half-Belt Overcoat.” That story, translated by Leo Shtutin, appeared in the Read Russia! anthology published earlier this year, and was, to my mind, easily the best in the collection. Maidenhair more than lives up to its promise; beautifully translated by Marian Schwartz, it is a fierce book from a sharp and generous mind.

There are, roughly, three narrative lines which structure the novel: in one, a nameless interpreter (Shishkin’s alter-ego), who works with asylum seekers in Switzerland, writes letters to his absent son, “Nebuchadnezzasaurus.” In another, two voices of unknown or unstable identity engage in a series of questions and answers. In the last, a Russian singer named Bella Dmitrievna records her life, and most of the twentieth century, in diaries which the interpreter will eventually read when he attempts to write her biography. With these three strands, Maidenhair weaves its tangled braid, although contained within it are also a dizzying array of historical digressions, philosophical preoccupations, parables, letters, jokes, and literary allusions.

I hesitate to describe the book as “universal” lest this imply that its themes, or its treatment of them, are banal; they are not. On the contrary, they are wonderfully inventive. So when I say that Maidenhair is universal, I mean that it wants to constitute a universe — or perhaps a map of the universe that is the same size as the universe itself. [. . .]

Shishkin has been described as the heir apparent of the great Russian novelists, and indeed, there are times when he seems to have taken the best from each of them. From Tolstoy he has inherited a sense for the epic; from Dostoevsky, spiritual acuity and a social conscience. He takes Nabokov’s remarkable linguistic flexibility but none of his arrogance; like Chekhov, he looks on humanity with humor and compassion. Shishkin’s Baroque turns of phrases seem written out of necessity and joy rather than pretention; he respects his readers, he delights in language, and he does not need to show off.

Eleanor Goodman on Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein:

In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.

Xi Chuan was born in 1963, just after the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward, and was a small child during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lucky and talented enough to be one of the few children able to go to school at the time, he later went on to major in English at Beijing University. As translator Lucas Klein explains in his exemplary Translator’s Introduction, in the spring of 1989 Xi Chuan lost two close poet friends, Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, both of whom were also Beijing University students. Following on the heels of that trauma were the events in Tiananmen, which Xi Chuan participated in and suffered from. The pain of his friends’ deaths and the disillusionment he experienced after the government crackdown discouraged him from writing for nearly two years. When he resumed, his style had changed considerably from the Imagist Western-influenced Obscure Poetry exemplified by poets such as Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian. He moved toward a more philosophical and less lyrical prose poetry that contrasts with his earlier shorter, often nature-inspired work. His most recent poems play with ideas of paradox, inheritance, and the past, present, and future of civilization.

These are large themes, and Xi Chuan knows how to write large poems to encompass them. [. . .]

But Klein’s ear rarely fails him. He captures both the music and slightly anachronistic feel of the original Chinese in the early poem “In the Mountains”: “Dusk congeals over the hungry cliff / excess dusk presses onto my tent / sunlight walks by on stones.” Xi Chuan abandoned this youthful style, and Klein—a scholar of contemporary and Tang dynasty literature—not only keenly identifies this and other more subtle shifts, but also manages to convey the changes convincingly, allowing the reader to come away with a sense of the arc of Xi Chuan’s artistic development. He comes up with lines that resound beautifully: “look to life’s last station / when the long-deceased song passes on again and red Persian asters / assemble in the distance like a chorus of birds.” The sound play of “life’s last station” and “song passes on” moving to “Persian asters” to “birds” builds a lovely alliterative scene that in sheer beauty momentarily surpasses the music of the original. So much is sacrificed in translation that a translator must identify and seize these fortuities wherever he can, and time and again Klein does exactly that. Xi Chuan’s verse could not have been better served in English.

Andrea Lingenfelter on Mo Yan’s Pow!, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt:

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. The hand-wringers have focused on Mo Yan’s politics—or rather their perception of Mo Yan’s lack of political consciousness—and talk about this has dominated editorial pages in the West, rather than talk about his art. In recent weeks, the 2009 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Romanian author Herta Mueller, characterized Mo Yan as a Communist Party hack and called the award “a catastrophe.”

Mo Yan’s politics are somewhat oblique, by design, and a read of his most recently translated novel, Pow!, shows that comments like Mueller’s are wide of the mark. Shot through with politics and history and 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. [. . .]

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 new prosperity as a center for the killing and butchering of animals 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. [. . .]

If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. 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 A6s 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.

Brad Johnson on Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary:

The books of the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec defy easy classification, but we can say that he writes for walkers: those for whom each step signifies something both taken/found and lost/forgotten. He writes about wanderers: those for whom destinations are rarely known, where every recognized face and remembered story proves too heavy with significance, slipping the grip of its proper naming. This is especially true of his recently translated novel, The Planets. Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Chejfec’s meditation on friendship, loss, and memory defies easy summation. This is fitting, for these also inform the fluid bounds of reality lived and described by his characters. Here, dreams are recited alongside the real events they anticipate and/or create; characters from dreams slide into the parables of protagonists; and iconic females blur within the slippages between vowels (e.g., Lesa/Sela) and consonants (e.g., Marta/Mirta). The Planets, in short, is a strange novel. It is made stranger still by the absence of its principle character, known only by the narrated memories of others, the enigmatic, nearly nameless M. This strangeness is fitting, then, for each story told about or by him is born of a gap—between dream and reality, past and present, cause and effect—and manifests the trauma of his absence.

To read The Planets is not so much to implant oneself within its narrated world as it is to discover oneself in this world’s orbit. Whereas in Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, the reader is invited into not merely the narrator’s world but his very perception of it, The Planets is distinguished by the ambivalence of its intimacy—the holding of its reader at arm’s length, in an abeyant proximity. The result is a work less immediately familiar than foreign. In a time where the pace of life has hastened to an informational blur—the world at our keyboarded fingertips and on our cable televisions, with so much available knowledge that we now question its purported power—it is precisely Chejfec’s ability to inhabit the immediacy of both known and unknown, common and strange, that makes his work so timely.

The immediacy of the familiar and the foreign informs, as well, the friendship between the narrator and M, the ponderous duo at the core of The Planets. Remaining nameless—“M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters”—they navigate Buenos Aires as though on a dual trajectory. Not merely inseparable in the banal way many childhood friends are described, they considered themselves so linked that the identity of one was unthinkable without the other. In recognition of this they exchange photographs, whereupon “M’s photo” accurately describes both the photo of himself and the one given to him by the narrator (and vice versa). Being and identity, they muse, are not steady-state givens, to hoard behind the closed doors of one’s consciousness. They are, rather, intermittent occurrences, dependent on, if not wholly determined by, the perspective of those who bear witness.

There are also great pieces on Karl Knausgaar’s _My Struggle, Gail Scott’s The Obituary, and Amal Al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation worth checking out, among many others. So be sure to read all of this issue and support QC however you can—it’s one of the greatest literary resources out there.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the things that may have gotten buried in all the articles about Mo Yan receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature is the fact that Seagull Books is bringing out his next work in English translation—POW!, which sounds pretty wild, and has been compared to the works of Witold Gombrowicz and Javok Lind.

Today, over at First Post, there’s an essay by Bishan Samaddar about the book.

I have little knowledge of Chinese literature. Much like Salman Rushdie, who confessed on Facebook that Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum has been lying unread on his bookshelf for ages, I have not had much inclination to pick up Chinese books. Few are available in good English translations. Only when Seagull Books, the publishing house I work for, decided to bring out an English translation of Mo Yan’s new novel POW! did I dive into this phantasmagoria.

In POW! Mo Yan writes in the voice of a child. The narrator is adult, he has decided to become a Buddhist monk, but his childhood has not left him. He recounts his experience of childhood to a certain silent Wise Monk in a ruined temple; his story flows uncontrollably. ‘Verbal diarrhea’, that disgusting cliché that I have always hated, now begins to make sense. Make no mistake about it—the flow in POW! is not just verbal. Having mostly read very middle-class-friendly books, where even the most passionate sex is prettified and lifted above the dailiness of life, POW! is most disconcerting in its obsession with the physical and the vulgar. The brutal genius of Mo Yan lies not just in making you identify with characters and situations as all great literature does but also in his refusal to omit the minutest, ugliest, most embarrassing detail of any experience. The ugliness makes the experience eerily intimate:

The old woman hobbled up to me, took a piece of turnip from her mouth and stuffed it into mine. That was sort of revolting, I don’t deny it. But thoughts of how pigeons exchange food turned revulsion into intimacy. I was reminded of something that had occurred in the past. It was back when my father had gone off to the northeast and Mother and I were surviving by dealing in scrap. We were taking a break at a roadside stall. . . . A blind couple with a chubby, fair-skinned baby were eating at the stall. The baby, obviously hungry, was crying. The woman, hearing my mother’s voice, asked if she would feed the baby. So Mother took the baby from her and a hard biscuit from the man, which she chewed into pulp before feeding him mouth to mouth. . . . I swallowed the turnip the old woman had put in my mouth and suddenly felt sharp-eyed and clear-headed.

The whole essay is interesting, but here are a few more clips that grabbed my attention:

Mo Yan is fixated on orifices. Sex, urinating, defecating aside, there is endless eating. The narrator tells us that he has had an impoverished childhood, bereft of meat, in a village famous for its meat-processing plant. There is hardly anything that is not eaten in this novel—chicken, duck, sheep, goat, dog, pig, cow, horse, donkey, ostrich. [. . .]

The pitch of life depicted in POW! is all too familiar to us Indians—there is eating, and there is vomiting; love and fornication, but also peeing and farting; passionate embraces but also the foulest of abuses; and the impossibly crude sentimental longing that one feels for one’s family. We often try not to notice the most physical aspects of this life but without them that life is pathetically incomplete.

Reading POW! I realized that the crucial thing about life is its irrationality. In a world saturated with Western narratives in which everything happens for a reason, Mo Yan is freedom. His characters have motives that are totally unfounded in reason; they are led to immense violence as well as complete renunciation in a world that we would hate to see as real but, unfortunately, is entirely real. Mo Yan has none of the fanciful flights that you encounter in Gabriel Garcia Marquez; he is a dark but hilarious continuing slapstick, a bawdy and bloody Buster Keaton. His fiction pushes its way up like grain through parched soil. And it does so only because the tale needs to be told.

Definitely check out the article, and then buy the book. I hear it’s being fast-tracked and could be available as early as the end of next month.

11 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In case you’re just getting up and haven’t heard the news, Mo Yan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 was awarded to Mo Yan “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Admittedly, I’ve never read any of Mo Yan’s books in full, but I’ve been interested in him since seeing him speak with his translator, Howard Goldblatt, at the MLA conference a few years back. Paul Yamazaki of City Lights was there as well, and highly recommended a few of his books, including Red Sorghum, his first novel.

He does have a number of titles available in English translation, including:

Red Sorghum

Spanning three generations, this novel of family and myth is told through a series of flashbacks that depict events of staggering horror set against a landscape of gemlike beauty, as the Chinese battle both Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s

The Garlic Ballads

The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government has encouraged them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as simple as they believed. Warehouses fill up, taxes skyrocket, and government officials maltreat even those who have traveled for days to sell their harvest. A surplus on the garlic market ensues, and the farmers must watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields. Families are destroyed by the random imprisonment of young and old for supposed crimes against the state.

The Republic of Wine: A Novel

In this hypnotic epic novel, Mo Yan, the most critically acclaimed Chinese writer of this generation, takes us on a journey to a conjured province of contemporary China known as the Republic of Wine—a corrupt and hallucinatory world filled with superstitions, gargantuan appetites, and surrealistic events. When rumors reach the authorities that strange and excessive gourmandise is being practiced in the city of Liquorland (so named for the staggering amount of alcohol produced and consumed there), veteran special investigator Ding Gou’er is dispatched from the capital to discover the truth. His mission begins at the Mount Lou Coal Mine, where he encounters the prime suspect—Deputy Head Diamond Jin, legendary for his capacity to hold his liquor. During the ensuing drinking duel at a banquet served in Ding’s honor, the investigator loses all sense of reality, and can no longer tell whether the roast suckling served is of the animal or human variety. When he finally wakes up from his stupor, he has still found no answers to his rapidly mounting questions. Worse yet, he soon finds that his trusty gun is missing.

Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh

In these stories he writes of those who suffer, physically and spiritually, under its yoke: the newly unemployed factory worker who hits upon an ingenious financial opportunity; two former lovers revisiting their passion fleetingly before returning to their spouses; young couples willing to pay for a place to share their love in private; the abandoned baby brought home by a soldier to his unsympathetic wife; the impoverished child who must subsist on a diet of iron and steel; the young bride willing to go to any length to escape an odious, arranged marriage. Never didactic, Mo’s fiction ranges from tragedy to wicked satire, rage to whimsy, magical fable to harsh realism, from impassioned pleas on behalf of struggling workers to paeans to romantic love.

Big Breasts & Wide Hips

In a country where patriarchal favoritism and the primacy of sons survived multiple revolutions and an ideological earthquake, this epic novel is first and foremost about women, with the female body serving as the book’s central metaphor. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900 and married at seventeen into the Shangguan family. She has nine children, only one of whom is a boy—the narrator of the book. A spoiled and ineffectual child, he stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings.

Mother, a survivor, is the quintessential strong woman who risks her life to save several of her children and grandchildren. The writing is picturesque, bawdy, shocking, and imaginative. The structure draws on the essentials of classical Chinese formalism and injects them with extraordinarily raw and surprising prose. Each of the seven chapters represents a different time period, from the end of the Qing dynasty up through the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao years. Now in a beautifully bound collectors edition, this stunning novel is Mo Yan’s searing vision of twentieth-century China.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Today’s most revered, feared, and controversial Chinese novelist offers a tour de force in which the real, the absurd, the comical, and the tragic are blended into a fascinating read. The hero—or antihero—of Mo Yan’s new novel is Ximen Nao, a landowner known for his benevolence to his peasants. His story is a deliriously unique journey and absolutely riveting tale that reveals the author’s love of a homeland beset by ills inevitable, political, and traditional.

Change

In Change, Mo Yan—China’s foremost novelist—personalizes the political and social changes in his country over the past few decades in a novella disguised as autobiography (or vice-versa). Unlike most historical narratives from China, which are pegged to political events, Change is a representative of “people’s history,” a bottom-up rather than top-down view of a country in flux. By moving back and forth in time and focusing on small events and everyday people, Yan breathes life into history by describing the effects of larger-than-life events on the average citizen.

And Seagull Books—one of the coolest indie presses in the world—is bringing out his next book, Pow! in January:

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 in this tale of sharp hatchets, bad water, and a rusty WWII mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the novels of dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz(!), or Jakov Lind(!!), Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.

In this bizarre romp through the Chinese countryside, the author treats us to a cornucopia of cooked animal flesh—ostrich, camel, donkey, dog, as well as the more common varieties. As his dual narratives merge and feather into one another, each informing and illuminating the other, Yan probes the character and lifestyle of modern China. Displaying his many talents, as fabulist, storyteller, scatologist, master of allusion and cliché, and more, Pow! carries the reader along quickly, hungrily, and giddily, up until its surprising dénouement.

Although these descriptions (aside from Pow!, which has Jeff Waxman written all over that jacket copy) seem pretty sobering, my impression—based in part on this Granta interview and hearing him read and reading a few other things online—is that his books are somewhat playful, and filled with food and sex and some non-PC things. He’s run into trouble getting his books published in China (who hasn’t?), and my sense of things is that this is an interesting and good choice for the award—and someone who western (re: American) readers will appreciate.

Going back to that Granta interview with John Freeman, here are a few things that caught my eye:

JF: Some of your writing recalls the work of Günter Grass, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Were these writers available to you in China when you were growing up? Can you tell us a little about your influences?

MY: When I first started writing it was the year of 1981, so I didn’t read any books by Marquez or Faulkner. It was 1984 when I first read their works and undoubtedly those two writers have great influence on my creations. I found that my life experience is quite similar to theirs, but I only discovered this later on. If I had read their works sooner I would have already accomplished a masterpiece like they did. [. . .]

JF: You often write in the language of the local Laobaixing, and specifically the Shandong dialect, which gives your prose a flinty edge to it. Does it frustrate you that some of the idioms and puns might not make it into an English translation or are you able to work around that with your translator, Howard Goldblatt?

MY: Well, indeed, I use quite a substantial amount of local dialect, idioms and puns in my earlier works because at that time I didn’t even China has progressed but progress itself brings up many issues, for instance environmental issues and the decline in high moral standards. consider that my work would be translated into other languages. Later on I realised that this kind of language creates a lot of trouble for the translator. But to not use dialect, idioms and puns doesn’t work for me because idiomatic language is vivid, expressive and it is also the quintessential part of the signature language of a particular writer. So, on the one hand I can modify and adjust some of my usage of puns and idioms but on the other I hope that our translators, during their work, can echo the puns I use in another language – that is the ideal situation. [. . .]

JF: Is avoiding censorship a question of subtly and to what extend do the avenues opened up by magical realism, as well as more traditional techniques of characterisation allow a writer to express their deepest concerns without resorting to polemic?

MY: Yes, indeed. Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.

In the coverage of the award on the The Guardian, I read that the Nobel Prize secretary recommended starting with The Garlic Ballads. Just to give you a taste, here’s the opening of that novel:

“Gao Yang!”

The noonday sun beat down fiercely; dusty air carried the stink of rotting garlic after a prolonged dry spell. A flock of indigo crows flew wearily across the sky, casting a shadowy wedge. There had been no time to braid the garlic, which lay in heaps, reeking as it baked in the sun. Gao Yang, whose eyebrows sloped downward at the ends, was squatting alongside a table, holding a bowl of garlic broth and fighting back the waves of nausea rising from his stomach. The urgent shout had come in through his unlatched gate as he was about to take a sip of the broth. He recognized the voice as belonging to the village boss, Gao Jinjiao. Hastily laying down his bowl, he shouted a reply and walked to the door. “Is that you, Uncle Jinjiao? Come on in.”

That’s not much to go on, but I’d have to quote a lot more to give you a full sense of the book . . . If I find more excerpts online, I’ll post them separately.

For now, congrats to Mo Yan, and congrats to his English-language translator, Howard Goldblatt. (Who will hopefully get some royalties for this. If not, that’s a tragedy.)

5 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thanks to Paper Republic for pointing out this early English-language review of Frog, Mo Yan’s latest novel.

The author of many novels, including Red Sorghum and The Republic of Wine, Mo Yan is one of the lucky Chinese writers who has been published in English translation, and it’s likely Frog will make it’s way over here as well. (According to the Global Times article, Mo Yan is one of China’s “hottest” writers, with “the most potential to one day take home the Nobel Prize in Literature,” which means that he’ll never actually win the Nobel Prize. Just ask Philip Roth.) It’ll be interesting to see how readers and reviewers respond to this novel, which centers around a rather touchy subject:

The novel, 10 years in the making and revised three times, presents a unique perspective on life on the grasslands over the past 60 years from the perspective of a local female doctor who specialized in child birth.

Before the family planning policy was adopted, Mo’s aunt, referred to in Frog simply as Gu Gu (“aunt” in Chinese), was once considered a godsend who helped deliver little miracles to local families. After the family planning policy was adopted, she transformed into the image of a devil who enforced abortive methods for women pregnant with a second child. [. . .]

“The family planning policy is a basic condition of China dealing with the most conservative element of traditional culture. It touches the sorest points and most delicate parts of the souls of thousands of millions of Chinese people,” [Mo] added.

China’s family planning policy has long been a topic that writers have dared not touch upon and few literary works have dealt with the subject.

Beyond the content, the form of the book sounds pretty interesting:

The novel is written in an epistolary style, comprising of five parts of four letters and a play, with the latter part focusing on Gu Gu’s confessions of the heart.

I love when novels include a play (see: Mulligan Stew, This Side of Paradise, Ulysses), and there really should be a term — “dramacore”? — to identify books that embed drama in their fiction . . .

....
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Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

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Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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