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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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