When Chinese author Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, the event was officially celebrated by the Chinese government and promptly criticised by prominent literary voices in the West.
The Nobel laureate Herta Müller called his win a "catastrophe". Exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called it "an insult to humanity and to literature". And Salman Rushdie called Mo Yan a "patsy for the regime" after he declined to sign a petition for the release of the imprisoned Chinese author and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a comment that triggered public sparring in print with Pankaj Mishra.
The author's real name is Guan Moye. As he explained in his Nobel acceptance speech, Mo Yan is a pen name that means "don't speak". It was meant as "an ironic expression of self-mockery" since he was a talkative child, the storyteller in the family. He's a member of China's Communist Party and this fact, together with the controversy, was difficult to ignore while reading POW!, his latest novel in English. Yet it cannot be denied that the book is a boisterous if imperfect example of the "hallucinatory realism" that the Nobel committee praised Mo Yan for, in which he "merges folk tales, history and the contemporary".
POW! is an epic family novel, rendered into English by Howard Goldblatt, that bursts with anecdotes, myths, political quips, and above all, meals of meat, like some gastronomic tour of a zoo. It will flummox those seeking proof of Mo Yan's true political beliefs. Instead, it gives a warts-and-all view of modern China from the perspective of a poor boy raised in a village where adults madly chase comfort and riches.
The narrator is a young man named Luo Xiaotong, who has hidden in the village's Wutong Temple to renounce worldly desires and become a monk. It's a meaningful choice of setting: during the Song dynasty, the Wutong cult honoured demonic shape-shifting spirits, similar to fox-spirit worship in northern China. They could bestow wealth, but at the price of sexual access to a person's family.
Luo Xiaotong tells his family history to an old monk, the sole worshipper in the crumbling temple. As he narrates, women and foxes enter the temple, storms arrive and pass, making for a dynamic interplay between the boy's past and the present reality, and Mo Yan creates parallels between the narrator's personal myths and Chinese folklore.
The prose is direct, bawdy and outlandish because, as Luo Xiaotong admits, he's a known "powboy", or liar. "Children who boasted and who shot off their mouths were called powboys," he says. "That nickname didn't cause me any shame, though. It actually made me proud."
Luo Xiaotong tells of his family's rise and fall in the 1990s in the hilariously named Slaughterhouse Village, where he spent the first 10 years of his life dirt poor. As a child, all he wanted was to eat meat - "meat, ah, meat, the loveliest thing on earth, that which makes my soul take flight" - and Mo Yan expends great energy creating obsessive descriptions of meals and gluttony.
The boy and his mother, Yang Yuzhen, live as disgraced scavengers picking through refuse for scrap metal. They've been abandoned by the man of the house, Luo Tong, who's run off with a woman known as Wild Mule. "After Father left," Luo Xiaotong tells the monk, "Mother came to be known as the Queen of Trash. That should have made me the Queen of Trash's son, but in fact I was the Queen of Trash's slave." No school for him, just beatings and insults from his mother ("bastard turtle", "rabbit runt"), if the powboy is to be believed.
One day while scavenging, mother and son find an old Japanese mortar left over from the war. "A typical boy - warlike - I was fascinated by weapons," Luo Xiaotong says. "Since my father had run off with another woman, I'd not been able to raise my head round other children, but now that I owned a mortar I could walk with my back straight, cockier than those who had fathers at home." Slaughterhouse Village is led by Lao Lan. "I'm not content with what we once were," he says. "I want to lead people onto a path to riches. Not only that, I want to make this a rich village." The town's economic saviour, he's Luo Xiaotong's sworn enemy, for reasons we learn over the course of the novel.
Lao Lan turns the village into a meat-producing powerhouse. "We live in an age that scholars characterise as that of the primitive accumulation of capital," he says. "Just what does that mean? Simply that people will make money by any means necessary, and that everyone's money is tainted by the blood of others." To get ahead, he injects the village's meat with water and formaldehyde, and brushes away government inspectors and reporters like flies. "If all Chinese were like you, communism would have been realised decades ago," the villagers joke.
In short time, Lao Lan helps Luo Xiatong's family and others get electricity, phones and televisions. Soon enough, "Within the confines of a hundred square li, Slaughterhouse was the only village in the area in which the roads had been paved and streetlights installed."
This primitive age of prosperity has its downsides. Luo Xiaotong recalls hearing about murders after the land reform period, knowing which "people who bought and sold women … and children", overhearing workers say "Moscow doesn't believe in tears!" and seeing chalk slogans written by counter-revolutionaries on the walls of the train station.
At home, the boy's father, Luo Tong, returns to the family bearing a new child, a daughter named Jiaojiao. Meanwhile, Slaughterhouse Village completes its transformation from a farming town to meat-producer when Lao Lan opens the United Meatpacking Plant and hires Luo Xiaotong's mother and father to work there.
The novel's second half is more fantastic as the boy realises his appetite is his sole, true power. He tells his parents that he and his sister "were sent down to earth to eat meat and that we'll go back after we've consumed our allotted amount". He wins a meat-eating contest and his love for meat gives him cunning. At age 12, he devises a "meat-cleansing" station and is hired as a manager at the meatpacking plant. There he force-feeds animals water to plump them before slaughter.
Amid various plot twists and dark comedy, Mo Yan offers up thick slabs of metaphorical food for thought: meat as money, confused with happiness, reflecting the soul of the village, or perhaps all of China, representing class struggle and survival at any cost. But the boy's yammering about meat grows repetitious, giving the novel a scattered, unstructured feel, and various stories from minor characters feel crammed in, often to little effect.
Myth and reality overlap greatly in the madcap scenes late in the novel, near the temple where Luo Xiaotong narrates. Ostriches are beheaded. A Carnivore Festival takes place and sickens people who eat there. Mythical orgies occur. Workers deliver a Meat God idol to the temple and somehow the boy believes his legendary appetite has made him immortal, the centre of village life: "I, Luo Xiaotong, am a man of unique experience. Just look at the Meat God standing there. That's me in my youth. The youthful me has been transformed into a god."
His life story ends, his family's in ruins, and he projects a huge revenge fantasy onto the village. Spent, he notices that the monk he's been talking to has become a decayed wooden idol. Is Luo Xiaotong real then, or a ghost telling tales from beyond the grave?
In his Nobel speech, Mo Yan spoke at length about growing up poor.
POW! is clearly a personal book, though his true feelings about life in China under communist rule lie under many deft fictional layers.
In the short afterword, Yan praises Gunter Grass' narrative approach in The Tin Drum, and mentions politics dismissively: "What about ideology? About that I have nothing to say. I've always taken pride in my lack of ideology, especially when I'm writing."
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who has served as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award