Mo Yan’s winning of the Nobel Prize probably couldn’t have come at a better time for Seagull Books, who released this Mo novel several weeks after the award was announced. This was good for them for a variety of reasons, I imagine, not least because they are a university press, so they were always going to have trouble competing in terms of marketing and promotion. That, (and I say this as a recovering bookseller), and the fact that this novel would be super difficult to hand-sell.
The first, most blindingly obvious thing, about this novel is the meat. There is so much talk about meat, about eating meat, about cooking meat, about consuming meat, it can get quite overwhelming at times. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no vegetarian—but Mo really hammers home this obsession with meat that has taken over Slaughterhouse Village and Luo Xiaotong.
Obviously we can’t take the novel at face value. The whole concept is so ridiculous, we have to look further, dig deeper in the symbolism behind the magical realism at work here. Fortunately, it is not that hard to make the leap Mo wants us to make. The meat, and the obsession behind it, can be seen as a symbol of modern, developing China, and the desire for more wealth and more material gains. It is because of the meat, and the meat industry that has sprung up in Slaughterhouse Village, that people are becoming rich. And, of course, with people being the way they are, as soon as they get some meat, they want more and more and more.
At the centre of this obsession lies Luo Xiaotong, a young boy whose own obsession with eating meat leads him to great fame and wealth. Comparisons have been made to Gunter Grass’ absurdist masterpiece The Tin Drum. The comparisons are apt. Despite only being 12 years old, Xiaotong somehow manages to be given control of the entire meat packing plant, because he is able to consume vast quantities of meat (his skills are tested in several meat eating competitions with grown men)
Much of the horrific novel is horrific, not necessarily in a visceral sense, but in a human sense. Tagged on to this satirical view of development in China is the story of Luo Xiaotong’s family, and the fractious relationship between his mother, his father and his younger half-sister. In many places, it is quite touching, and Mo really goes to town on those fathers that leave young families simply for the sake of their own happiness.
Not that there aren’t scenes that won’t make your stomach turn. One in particular left me feeling unwell: the graphic description of the way in which the new meat-packaging plant, built to accommodate larger demand for exotic meat, pumps water not into dead meat, but into live animals, so it can be said they are not filling their meat with water to trick customers. Of course, the flip side
You’ll note I’ve avoided mentioning the elephant in the room that seems to come saddled with every Mo Yan review: that, because he is a member of the CCP, he can’t possibly be a good writer. I don’t buy that, so I’m moving swiftly on. Dylan Suher has an interesting article about it published in Asymptote here.
There is no escaping the fact that Pow! is bizarre. It is big, bold, and often confusing. But it is quite unlike any other Chinese fiction I’ve ever read. He might not be writing the biting social commentary we have all come to expect from contemporary Chinese literature, but Mo Yan has a gift that is undeniable.