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Book review: Pow! stays on China's surface

Mo Yan’s backstory representative of the country stays clear of the darker undercurrents

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

Late last year, the Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. His status as a Party favourite in China and his statement comparing censorship to airport security — viewed as witty in the Chinese media and a blunder in the West — pushed him to centre stage, and rekindled the perennial debate on the relationship between politics and literature.

“Pow!” is his first novel to appear in English since the Nobel honour. Politics aside, this book seems to represent everything that has gone amiss in Mo Yan’s work, and perhaps in a broader way what has gone awry in China’s literature of the past 30 years.

The novel opens with a young man telling his family story to an old monk,reversing the well-known formula for childhood stories in which an old monk tells a story to a young one.

During the narrative a slew of inexplicable characters comes and goes in front of the narrator’s eyes: foxes that have taken on human nature eating a meal cooked by a fairy; a young female ghost exposing herself to the narrator, half a mother figure and half a lover.

The monk joins in, reviving his old spirit and leaving the young narrator in awe.

It has long been accepted that Mo Yan’s work is influenced by García Márquez’s magical realism; in the official press release, the Nobel prize committee praised him for a “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

The storytelling thread of the narrative teems with hallucinations: foxes, which feature prominently in traditional folk tales (they show up in a family of three and sit down to eat their porridge, like the three bears in “Goldilocks”); monks and ghosts possessing supernatural powers. All these are dutifully presented in a mishmash of nightmares, but to what end? Who needs these hackneyed hallucinations?

Certainly Mo Yan does, as without them he would have a bigger challenge: to tackle the gritty realism of his fictional world. The backstory of the novel is a more solid and representative tragedy of contemporary China.

The narrator’s family, like many families in the village, gave up farming to become butchers. The village, under the sway of an entrepreneurial leader, used all sorts of ways to cheat: water was injected into the meat to add weight; formal dehyde and artificial colours were added to preserve the fresh look. For a while the family prospered in the meat industry, until the narrator’s father axed his wife to death in front of his children and her lover.

Intertwined with this family tragedy is the image of contemporary China — a butchering society that feeds on greed, deception, corruption and material decadence.

One cannot say that Mo Yan has not criticised China in his portrayal of the village, but rather than exploring the darker undercurrents of society or the depths of the characters, he seems to make it his goal to stay on the surface. Much of the energy of the novel is spent on long and sensuous descriptions of butchering, cooking, eating and other bodily functions. There are too many episodes when the reader has to witness this or that character urinating, and to endure long descriptions of the urine.

Towards the end of the novel, the narrator tries to avenge his parents by firing Second World War mortar shells at his mother’s lover. The long passages about his 41 attempts — “Forty-one Shots” was the original Chinese title, changed to the lively Pow! — again read as a desperate measure to prolong the novel without touching the heart of the matter. They offer no more than a repetitive summary of what has already happened, something that a more confident writer would not force his readers to reread.

Before writing this review, I reread a few of Mo Yan’s earlier works, including “Big Breasts” and “Wide Hips”, and a couple of the volumes in “Red Sorghum Clan”. What made his name in those other novels can also be found in “Pow!”. To be fair, the urge to shock is not restricted to Mo Yan alone: many writers from his generation are preoccupied with sex. One wonders if they are mistaking virility for vitality, or if they feel the calling of a market for such books.

Reading “Pow!” reminded me of watching a traditional Chinese shadow puppet show, though in this case with lust, bloodthirstiness, torture and other sensational details splashed on to the background.

Are we to be shocked, disgusted, or disturbed? Perhaps. Are we to hope for any depth in any of the characters? No. Are we to take the book seriously? Taking Mo Yan seriously seems a perfect way to deflate him. Perhaps this is a way to stay away from politics: to be a fabulist, but not to be taken so seriously.

Seagull Books,
440 pages, £18