Mo Yan

Mo Yan's Boxer Rebellion novel an orgy of pain and pleasure

Mo Yan's Boxer Rebellion novel is an emotional see-saw, a magical, operatic, violent historical epic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 3:12pm

Mo Yan's first novel to be published in English since he won last year's Nobel prize for literature is a strange, gruesome, vivid and ambitious historical novel set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901). As the 20th century struggles into being, the grand narratives that will dominate most of the next 100 years (war, genocide, empire, economics, technology, guerilla warfare) are played out in ways that are at once intimate and epic, personal and political, realistic and surreal.

At the centre of Sandalwood Death is a slippery young woman, Sun Meiniang, whose dieh (father), Sun Bing, is imprisoned for helping lead the revolution. In her opening chapter alone, Meiniang is adulterous and loyal, loving and lustful, conniving and innocent. Conveniently enough for the reader (though not for Sun), her father's fate will be decided by two men in her most intimate circle.

The political and legal judgment falls to Qian Ding, the newly appointed magistrate of Gaomi County. He not only has history with Sun (an intense love-hate rivalry that culminates with a splendidly odd "battle of the beards" contest), he has more than a little with Meiniang: the pair have had a love-love relationship - until Sun's incarceration that is.

"Magistrate, I presented you with a body silkier than the finest Suzhou satin and sweeter than Cantonese sugar melon … now after all the pampering and voyages into erotic fairyland, why will you not let my dieh go free?'

The other major player in Sun's fate is Zhao Jia, Meiniang's father-in-law ( gongdieh) and the most feared executioner in all of China: "Your dieh never held official rank," he tells Xiaojia, his doltish son and Meiniang's husband, "but the number of red-capped heads he has lopped off could fill two large wicker baskets. So, for that matter, could the heads of nobles and aristocrats."

Famed for devising the most excruciating, devilish and drawn-out punishments known to man (the Yama Hoop, the 500 Cuts), Zhao Jia's most dastardly invention gives Mo's novel its title: "The gist of it is that a pointed sandalwood stake is inserted into the subject's grain passage and forced up all the way to the nape of his neck and out. Then he is bound to a tree." This tree binding seems oddly innocuous given what has come before. Suffice to say, death is a welcome release from all that pain.

The opening section eases the reader into these intertwined relationships through monologues inspired by operatic aria. Each chapter is narrated by a single character, and begins with a condensed, rhyming character summary seemingly extracted from a libretto for a Maoqiang opera called Sandalwood Death. This was the musical form practised by Sun until he swapped music for guerilla warfare.

The tone in Howard Goldblatt's admirable English translation is a frothy combination of opposites. Mo can be lively and vulgar one moment, lyrical and romantic the next. What unites both halves is a sensual awareness of the body and nature: whether through pleasure or, when Zhao is around, pain. Mo is gifted at crude curses ("Stinking castrati, f*** you and your mothers") but can quickly shift to poetic bursts of erotic feeling: "Rivers roiled, seas churned, you swallow me, I devour you … he and she shed their cocoons and emerged with natural beauty as they achieved immortality." What makes even this vividly imagined first consummation of Meiniang's love/lust so nuanced is that she had crept into Qian's chamber to kill him.

This central duality is also signalled by Mo's literary menagerie. Animals are everywhere, both in reality (dog's legs are Qian's favourite meal) and imagery: each character has a spirit animal, for instance.

Meiniang's husband Xiaojia's one goal in life is to find a white tiger's whisker so he can see a human's true animal essence: she obliges by giving him a hair from her head. Yet somehow Xiaojia is granted visions that his murderous father is a slavering panther, his duplicitous wife a snake. His tragedy is that he is still unable to draw conclusions from these seemingly mystical visions.

Magic and naturalism vie throughout the novel in much the same way they did for the Boxers themselves: they fused nationalist politics, revolutionary protest and a spiritual devotion to martial arts training. This is made explicit in the novel's long middle section, which discards the first-person arias to narrate the rebellion in the third person. As the dramatis personae expands, so does the back-drop which broadens from the personal to the widescreen. Mo's focus extends from the populous imperial court to Sun's terrified isolation on a mountainside, where he witnesses his wife and children's murder by German soldiers.

Even these more action-packed scenes appear in a hallucinatory way. The narrative progresses in reverse: an event (say, the beheading of the dissident Six Gentlemen) is described, then explained by recourse to the past. The effect is a little like walking down some steps backwards to see what happened at the top. Mo's prose in these more detached passages is still powerful, if slightly less striking than the monologues that bookend Sandalwood Death. Nevertheless, he writes movingly of the massacre of Masang by German troops, and with gut-wrenching pathos about the beheading of the Six Gentlemen or the torture of Qian Xiongfei, Qian Ding's younger, and wilder, brother.

Sandalwood Death is a multi-layered historical epic bubbling over with language, ideas, perspectives and entertaining sub-plots.

Like so many of its characters and indeed China itself, the moral of the story is often hard to grasp. Allegiances shift in a second. Motivations are rarely clear-cut or stable. Love swaps places with hate (and vice versa). The government's chief torturer can be moved to tears by his admiration for a stranger, but remain contemptuous of his own child. The emperor is disgusted by the very punishments he has just ordered. Those like Salman Rushdie who dismiss Mo as simply a "patsy" of an authoritarian government would do well to read this complex, and subtle novel that illuminates the darkest corners of power, control and political violence.

The results are chilling, but always human.

thereview@scmp.com

 

 

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