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.
From : The National