“Pow!” by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Seagull Books, 386 pgs., $27.50)
This year’s Nobel laureate in literature is an author who somehow manages to write books with brazenly political themes while living in a dictatorship. Mo Yan’s latest novel, “Pow!” is a thinly veiled assault on the frayed moral fabric of that hyper-capitalist country known as Communist China.
The characters in “Pow!” do awful and disgusting things, most of them involving meat. The residents of Slaughterhouse Village love meat so much (be it donkey meat, Mongolian barbecue or “quail teppanyaki”) that they build a temple to it.
They fornicate in the presence of their Meat God. They also taint the meat they sell with poisonous preservatives and play all sorts of tricks on unwitting consumers to make more money from it.
“We live in an age that scholars characterize as the primitive accumulation of capital,” says the venal government boss of Slaughterhouse Village. “Just what does that mean? Simply that people will make money by any means necessary, and that everyone’s money is tainted by the blood of others.”
“Pow!” illustrates how Communist Party bosses have helped create this new China, a country where “moral behavior” is no longer “in fashion,” as the leader of Slaughterhouse Village puts it. And yet Mo, the public intellectual, basically curls up into a ball when it comes to directly criticizing those bosses.
A few days before accepting the Nobel Prize this month, Mo gave the Chinese regime a pass on censorship: It’s as necessary as airport screening, he said. And in a strange “Afterword” that appears in “Pow!” itself, he says his novel has no political intent: It’s merely a story about a boy who likes to tell stories and nothing else.
“Narration is his ultimate goal in life,” Mo writes of the protagonist of “Pow!,” who is a boy of 10 and then, in alternating chapters, a young man of 20. “What about ideology? About that I have nothing to say. I’ve always taken pride in my lack of ideology, especially when I’m writing.”
That’s all well and good for Mo Yan, the Chinese citizen, to say. And living in a country where there’s only one official “ideology” what else could he say?
But on the page, Mo Yan the novelist has produced in “Pow!” a work with a sly but obvious “ideological” bent. It portrays modern-day China as a place where government “thugs” in mirrored sunglasses and Audis, Cadillacs and Volvos run wild — and where even the most earnest and innocent citizen can get swept up in the culture of greed.
Mo the public figure is careful with words. But Mo the novelist slips past the censors by dressing up his cutting realism in absurd and fantastic clothing.