Updated Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 07:01 AM
by Mo Yan
Seagull Books, 440 pp., $27.50
This year’s Nobel Laureate for Literature winner is Mo Yan, a Chinese writer living in China. The smart money was on Japanese author Haruki Murikami, but the dark horse came through in the stretch.
Mo Yan is the pen name of 57-year-old Guan Moye. He chose the name, which means “don’t speak,” from his parents’ warning about expressing his opinions outside of their home in 1950s China. Yan’s success has created controversy among other authors and previous Nobel Laureates because he is adjudged to be too uncritical of Chinese censorship. His supporters prefer to see his writing as subtle in its criticism; perhaps he is still mindful of his parents’ advice.
Mo Yan has gathered six of his novellas into “POW!” Set in the Chinese countryside, the narrator, Luo Xiaotong, in the voice of a child, has an omniscient perspective on life and death, past and present, real and hallucinatory events. He is now an adult and has decided to become a Buddhist monk. His story flows in and out of time and place, nothing is left out.
Because he has combined several stories, the main narrative is interspersed with other vignettes; some self-contained, some ongoing. If it sounds confusing, it can be — but in the end it all makes sense.
The primary metaphor in “Pow!” is meat: all kinds of meat: donkey, dog, ostrich, sheep, cow ... the Chinese have said of themselves that they will eat anything on four legs except a table; this tale bears out the statement. Meat might stand for affluence or physical satisfaction or just being important enough to have access to it.
The young narrator lives in Slaughterhouse Village, the place where animals are killed, injected with water and formaldehyde to make them weigh more and sold near and far. He is a formidable eater of meat, great platters of it. He claims to be able to hear the meats speak to him, begging him to eat, waving to him to taste their succulence. It helps to suspend disbelief during these forays because part of what makes this book worth reading is that it is wickedly funny. The title comes from the mortar that Luo and his mother pick up as scrap. Eventually, Luo finds shells for it and puts them to hilarious use at the end of the story.
The gravitas of the story is that of one family in a village in China; a father who abandons them, then returns with a baby sister, a harridan of a mother who is cruel and withholding, a village chief who is alternately friend and enemy. Mo Yan spares the reader nothing. He recounts matters disgusting, ugly, raunchy, repulsive, sexually graphic, ineffably sad, occasionally joy-filled — all of which combine to make a novel larger than life.
Jeff Paslay / THE SEATTLE TIMES