On Oct. 11, the Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and two months later his new novel, “POW!”, demonstrates for Americans why he deserved to win. It’s a vibrant, visceral novel that is both personal and political, realistic and surrealistic, funny and shocking. The explosive title cries out — “POW!” — but it is also a subtle display of narrative wizardry.
Like many of Mo Yan’s earlier novels, it is set in the poverty-stricken rural China in which he grew up. A troubled 19-year-old named Luo Xiaotong has decided to abandon his vagabond life and become a monk at a temple near his home town, Slaughterhouse Village. But before he does so, he wants to tell his life story to the wise monk who tends the temple.
The novel alternates between 2000 and a decade earlier. As Luo tells how he and his tigerish mother struggled to survive after his father left them for a woman nicknamed Wild Mule, only to return sheepishly five years later with an illegitimate daughter in tow, he reveals his obsession with meat. Determined to save enough money to build a house and demonstrate she doesn’t need a man, Luo’s mother deprives him of meat, which becomes in Mo Yan’s hands a wide-ranging metaphor for obsession, sex and politics. Luo is convinced that the world’s population — animal as well as human — can be divided into “those who eat meat and those who don’t” and who consequently play the “roles of eater and eaten.”
It’s a dog-eat-dog world — literally. Lots of dogs are consumed in this novel — and later, when Luo is able to satisfy his carnivorous cravings, he is emboldened by his diet to indulge in widespread carnage, a brilliant dramatization of the meat-sex-power-violence nexus that the novel has been bulking up to.
Over the course of the few days he tells his tale, Luo is interrupted by a stream of increasingly strange visitors, and he watches with disbelief as a “Meat Appreciation Parade” approaches the temple as a prelude to a Carnivore Festival, a bizarre event that culminates in an opera called “From Meat Boy to Meat God,” a surrealistic parody of Luo’s life. “I rub my eyes and, like the heroes in wildwood tales who ponder their reactions to strange encounters, I bite my finger to see if I am dreaming.” (And thanks go to translator Howard Goldblatt for not Americanizing that to “I pinch myself”; he retains Mo Yan’s Chinese idioms and allusions throughout.) Luo suspects all this is an illusion staged by the monk as a test, and the author leaves us at the end as puzzled as Luo as to how much is real and how much imagined.
The author reminds us that humans, too, are essentially animals. He blurs the distinction by using animal metaphors for human actions and by giving his animals human attributes, a ploy enabled by China’s colorful mythology. One peasant is convinced that a cow is the reincarnation of his mother and treats her accordingly; various women are compared to the fox-spirits common in folk tales; a rich big-shot justifies his tomcatting ways by comparing himself to “a stud horse, and stud horses belong to all the mares in a herd.” In rural settings like the one in this shapeshifting novel, humans and animals have a symbiotic relationship, but Mo Yan demonstrates that even the most civilized city-dweller is a beast at heart.
In a brief afterword, Mo Yan says the novel is autobiographical, but his stand-in, Luo Xiaotong, admits he is something of a “powboy”: “In my village ‘pow’ also meant to brag and to lie.” “POW!” is also the sound made by the 41 mortar shells Luo fires off in the novel’s 41st and final chapter. Mo Yan’s “POW!” is a pyrotechnic display of how to blow up one’s personal life to mythic proportions.
Moore is the author of “The Novel: An Alternative History.” His edition of “The Letters of William Gaddis” will be published in March.
By Mo Yan
Translated from the Chinese
by Howard Goldblatt
Seagull. 386 pp. $27.50