Book review: Pow!, by Mo Yan
by Mo Yan
translated by Howard Goldblatt
Mo Yan's first novel to appear in English since the Nobel honour, Pow! reads like public masturbation; at times laughable, in the end it reminds readers that such an act should be done in private rather than in print.
The novel opens with a young man telling his family story to an old monk, reversing the well-known formula for childhood stories in which an old monk tells a story to a young one.
The storytelling narrative thread teems with hallucinations: foxes, which show up in a family of three and sit down to eat their porridge like the three bears in Goldilocks; monks and ghosts with supernatural sex powers; a karaoke bar that is also an underground brothel. All these are presented in a mishmash of nightmares. Who needs these hackneyed hallucinations?
Certainly Mo Yan does, as without them he would have a bigger challenge: to tackle the gritty realism of his fictional world. The backstory of the novel is a more representative tragedy of contemporary China. The narrator's family, like many others, gave up farming to become butchers. The village, under the sway of an entrepreneurial leader, used all sorts of ways to cheat: water was injected into the meat to add weight; artificial colours were added to preserve the fresh look. For a while the family prospered in the meat industry, until the narrator's father axed his wife to death in front of his children and her lover. Along with this family tragedy is the image of contemporary China - a butchering society that feeds on greed, deception, corruption and material decadence.
The narrator tries to avenge his parents by firing second world war mortar shells at his mother's lover. The long passages about his 41 attempts - Forty-one Shots was the original Chinese title, changed to Pow! - again read as an attempt to prolong the novel without touching the heart of the matter.
Guardian News & Media