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Book Review

‘Pow!’ and ‘Sandalwood Death’ by Mo Yan

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

Is there an abattoir so lethal as Chinese history? During Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the economic and social restructuring plan that began in 1958, it is estimated that up to 45 million people died, mostly from starvation. Such figures are beyond comprehension. This is killing on an industrial level, except the cause of these deaths was intimate, personal, agonizing.

Chinese literature is vast and rich, so it is possible there are giants of the novel who have addressed this ocean of death — and the trauma that travels on its ripples — with boldness and grace who are not yet known in English. Among the writers we have available to us in this country, however, none has returned Chinese history to human scale (if not always in human form) quite so vividly as Mo Yan.

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When he won the Nobel Prize in October, Yan was criticized — within China and especially in the West — for his relationship to the Communist Party. His lack of protest against the current government’s imprisonment of writers and artists was also noted. Salman Rushdie called him “a patsy of the regime.” Herta Müller, the 2009 laureate, whose novels date back to the time she spent in Romania living under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, called his selection a “slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.”

There are ironies within ironies here, however. Mo Yan is actually a pen name — it means “don’t speak” — of Guan Moye, who was born in 1955 in Gaomi County in the Shandong Province. He was 11 when the Cultural Revolution began, and his pen name comes from a warning his parents gave him as a child, when a loose tongue could get you killed. He clearly didn’t listen, for Yan emerged as a writer in the 1980s and his books speak loudly, boldly, blackly, hilariously, about Chinese political and sexual history.

While it is a gross reduction to read Yan’s novels as criticism in code, they are certainly not the work of a patsy. “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out” (2006) conjures a benevolent landowner who is executed so his land can be redistributed. He is then reincarnated as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, and finally a monkey. He experiences, through these bodies, the shame and abuses and violence of the revolutionary upheavals of China in the 20th century. “Frog,” an as-yet-untranslated novel set in more contemporary times, tells the tale of a midwife who witnesses the clandestine, sometimes forced abortions of daughters by women desperate to have a male heir for their husbands. Has there been such a straightforward look at the one-child policy and its hidden collateral damage?

Yan’s work is not realistic. It is magical, Rabelasian, satirical, steeped in blood, and obsessed with food in uncomfortable ways. In “The Republic of Wine,” an inspector who has been sent to the fictional province of Liquorland, where decadence has been reportedly occurring on a grand scale, goes on a bender and cannot tell whether the roasted meat he eats at a drinking duel is pork or human.

In “The Garlic Ballads,” a group of farmers who have been driven by the government to plant the herb revolt when the market becomes glutted, and they begin to starve. Woven into this tale is a family epic, in which men bend and break under stress and beatings, and women – in turn – absorb the redirected hatred of humiliated men.

Caught between the burdens of motherhood, and the compressive cruelties of various forms of government, Yan’s female characters are bold survivors, tricksters, steely-tough. They also speak their minds. Of all Yan’s heroines, however, two are most extraordinary — Mother, who gives birth to eight women and finally a male heir in the masterpiece, “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” and Sun Meiniang, the voice behind “Sandalwood Death,” one of two new books Yan is publishing this month.

“Sandalwood Death” borrows its form and story from a Maoqiang opera that was well known in Northeast Gaomi Township where Yan grew up. The action unfolds against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), a revolt led by farmers and craftsmen against imperial creep in northern China that claimed over 100,000 lives. Sun Meiniang’s father, an opera singer, was a leader of the uprising. The government captures him and plans to execute him by sandalwood death, or crucifixion with some added effects.

Sun Meiniang has three male figures in her life to whom she can appeal, and over the course of the novel she tries her best to save her father’s life. Her husband, a butcher, is useless.

Every day Sun Meiniang brings dog meat and other fruits of his knife’s labors to her gandieh, or sugar daddy, a local magistrate, who takes her body, too. Their transactional sex is equity Sun Meiniang hopes to cash in to save her father, but from the moment her father is arrested the gandieh becomes mysteriously hard to reach.

Finally, there is Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, who arrives near the beginning of the book bearing a bloody and secret past as a government executioner. He brags he has made enough heads roll to fill several wicker baskets.

“Sandalwood Death” is a polyphonic novel, told in its first half from several perspectives and in the latter portion by an omniscient narrator. Sun Meiniang’s section is the most vivid and illuminating. Her voice is indulgent, cruel, possessed with pride, yet full of terror; even though her father beat her mother, she is determined not to let the old man be killed as an example. Her quest to secure his rescue is desperate and heartbreaking.

The march to his death, like the build-up to Cromwell’s show trials in Hilary Mantel’s “Bring up the Bodies,” has a malevolent kind of momentum, underscored by the occasional rhymes that nod to the book’s opera origins. But while death in England came with one swift blow in that period, the punishment as described in “Sandalwood Death” is sadistic and horrifying.

Also this month Yan has published his first novel to appear in English before it is published in Chinese, “Pow,” a slightly lighter but equally bestial tale. It, too, is translated by Howard Goldblatt, who has proven over nine books that he can capture the huge range in Yan’s style, from the elegant and elegiac tone employed in the novella, “Change: What Was Communism,” to the high farce of “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh,’’ and now, “Pow!”

The hero of “Pow!” is Luo Xiaotong, who was renowned as the world’s most gluttonous boy. Over the course of the novel, as we learn of how Luo loved meat so much that it sang to him and how his frugal mother’s decision to deprive him of it made him crazed with longing, Yan creates a compelling, if grotesque bestiary of appetites and their consequences.

Alongside Lou’s tale, “Pow” chronicles the changes in a town that has come under the spell of capitalism. Farmers abandon their fields and become butchers, and meat is artificially inflated with injections of water and kept fresh with chemicals normally used to preserve the dead. In the end, townspeople literally become sick from greed.

In the Swedish Academy’s citation to Mo Yan it praised the “hallucinatory realism” of his novels. “Pow!” will not disappoint readers who are in search of a definition of what that means. After one binge, a character complains that “[a]ll that pork lay heavily in my stomach, churning and grinding like a litter of soon-to-be-born piglets.”

Later, in one of the book’s many tales within tales, Big Belly Wu, who has become ill during a fritter-eating contest, has to be taken to the hospital. His stomach is opened up and “half-eaten fritters labouriously removed from his stomach.”

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work Yan has claimed as an inspiration, sometimes the images in “Pow!’’ overflow, and the very point of his writing is that abundance. Unlike the magical realists, however, there is a lucid clarity to Yan’s best writing. In this country he is akin to William T. Vollmann, whose books are long and dense with harrowing and acute images.

When such images pile up across the banquet of a black comedy like this, they create a dis-ease, a feeling of implication. This is not a purely Falstaffian world, after all. Tasty and delectable descriptions of food sit right on top revolting depictions. Yan’s characters in “Pow!’’ are the children of people who were starved. This is a country that metaphorically eats itself, and now, facing capitalism’s promise, may fatten itself by consuming the poisoned meat of its past. “Pow!” and“ Sandalwood Death” are powerful and necessary refusals to digest that meal.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’
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