Appetite for corruption

Pow!, by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt, Seagull Books, RRP$27.50/£18, 440 pages

The pen name Mo Yan may mean “don’t speak”, but the writer behind the name has more to say than some news headlines suggest. Mo, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, was much criticised in the days following the award for his perceived cosy relationship with the Chinese government and reluctance to stand up for freedom of expression. Such judgments, however, are challenged by his bold, outlandish and far from apolitical new novel. Like his earlier works – which include The Republic of Wine (published in English in 2000) and Red Sorghum (1997) – Pow! defies easy definition. It is national and personal in its concerns, surreal and real, and as comic as it is serious.

Pow! is the story of a family and a village that mirrors China’s dramatic and troubling path to modernisation. The teenage narrator, Luo Xiaotong, recounts that his father left with another woman (“Aunty Wild Mule”) when he was five. His mother works to better her situation and recover her pride, and the family is persuaded to help manage the village’s central meat business by Lao Lan, a man who “had a potbelly and rosy cheeks and his voice rang out like a pealing bell. In a word, he was born to be a rich official.”

Lan, the village head and savvy businessman, makes his fortune selling water-injected meat preserved in formaldehyde to outsiders. After rumours spread about the corruption of the village meat industry, he unifies production into the United Meatpacking Plant and, with Xiaotong’s help, expands the business to enormous proportions.

Meat is everywhere. In Slaughterhouse Village the meat industry supports the livelihood of many workers, though most of them can’t afford to eat it very often. Xiaotong had to endure an all-vegetarian diet during the family’s leanest years, and now his most intimate relationship is with meat. At one point he tells us: “Tearfully I ate the tearful meats, and felt that we had embarked on the path to spiritual awakening.”

A relentless appetite drives more than one character. Xiaotong’s compulsive, erotic desire for constant consumption of animal products is matched by Lan’s hunger for power and money. His greed, in turn, becomes emblematic of a nation caught in the frenzy of accumulation, whatever the cost. Meat’s omnipresence and omnipotence in the village becomes a means of critiquing the rampant corruption and hypocrisy of socialist China.

Pow! echoes the social realist novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906) in its depiction of corrupt practices within the meat industry. The vast new meat plant merely standardises and legalises the same corrupt, illegal treatment of meat that was practised in the village before; the animals are treated brutally, and the disgruntled workers are beholden to our narrator and his potbellied boss. The village’s Carnivore Festival is celebrated with the word “meat” emblazoned in bold red letters scripted across the sky by fireworks, as if meat were a god. Still later, meat is transmogrified into a literal god by Governor Xu, who approves plans for a Meat Temple.

The corruption and opportunism surrounding meat in this novel can be read in the light of a series of scandals in China concerning food safety, but Mo does not reserve his criticism for the industry alone. In the novel’s afterword, he writes that he takes pride in his “lack of ideology, especially when I’m writing”, and Pow! makes clear that he is not only a critic of the regime: he is a critic of all hypocrisy.

For a writer who purportedly lacks ideological leanings, Mo writes in a surprisingly direct way. He is no fan of capitalism and its attendant values, and the novel is rife with comments such as “Owning a Madonna fur or leather coat is the dream of young men and women with empty purses.” But he reserves his greatest criticism for officials, including the mayor who “smells like shit” and strangers driving into town who must be “high-ranking cadre” since they are in flashy foreign Audis. The heart of Pow!, and its greatest sympathies, are on display in Xiaotong’s comment that “In today’s society ... the best that labouring people can hope for is to make enough to live a decent life. Most never even manage that ... ”

Mo may be circumspect in his public statements and speeches, but even a cursory study of those appearances reveals the same play with double entendres that laces his novels. In fiction, he is a sly critic who stays as faithful to the narrative form and language of his art as he does to its moral landscape. The name Mo Yan is deceptive. As he noted in his Nobel lecture, “For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works.”

Krys Lee is the author of the short story collection ‘Drifting House’ (Faber)

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