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.

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.

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.

....
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The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

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Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

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The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

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