Book review: POW! by Mo Yan

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Nobel prizewinner? That’s ridiculous, writes Allan Massie

POW! by Mo Yan

Seagull Books. 386pp. £18.99

The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature often provokes argument. That’s true of other literary prizes of course, but, on account of its pretensions, it’s more true of the Nobel than of any other. The Nobel Laureate becomes one of the Great and Good, all the more so becomes one of the requirements for being awarded the prize is that the writer’s work should have “an ideal” – or idealistic “content”.

Not surprisingly, therefore, much of the discussion about the award of the Prize to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan has centred on his relationship to China’s governing Communist Party. Perry Link, writing in the New York Review of Books, asked whether the Nobel “should go to a writer who is ‘inside the system’ of an authoritarian government that imprisons other writers”, and asks “how and to what extent immersion in, and adjustment to, an authoritarian political regime affects what he or she writes?” Salman Rushdie has gone further and accused Mo Yan of being “a patsy for the regime”.

Few of us – and certainly few who will review this novel – really know enough about China or about Mo Yan’s relationship with the regime to be competent to answer the questions raised by Perry Link, a distinguished American scholar who has translated many Chinese books and has been denied entry to China since 1996. (It’s possible that Salman Rushdie is no more competent to judge the question than I am.) On the other hand we can read Mo Yan’s latest novel and make a judgement of its quality.

The Nobel Committee say that “Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez” – both Nobel Prize winners – “at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.” “Oral tradition” is doubtless fair enough, given that the narration is entrusted to a boy called Luo Xiaotung, whose verbosity is equalled only by his passion for meat-eating, which is certainly remarkable, one character declaring that “just watching him stuff his face is better than embracing my wife in bed”. However, I can see no resemblance whatsoever to William Faulkner’s fiction.

The story of his youth and upbringing is told to a wise monk in a temple, and, as the author says in an end-note, which readers may be advised to turn to first because it at least tells us what the author was aiming at, the boy has matured physically but not mentally, and he “tries to recapture his youth by prattling away with his tale”. “Prattling away” is indeed what he does, on and on and on.

It is a story of his village, his parents’ unhappy marriage, ended when his father runs off with another woman. This so infuriates his mother that she denies him the meat he craves. The novel is, I should say, determinedly comic, and Mo Yan is given to extravagant language and wild comparison: for example, we have an image of “nipples rising gracefully like the captivating mouths of hedgehogs” – a simile which neither says anything nor evokes an image, and which is therefore worthless. The novel is full of this kind of bad writing, and it seems unlikely that the diligent translator, Howard Goldblatt, Research Professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame, is to blame.

Mo Yan’s writing has been praised for its “daft hilarity”, which is, I think, a way of saying that it owes less to observation than to fancy. Pretty well everything in the book is wildly exaggerated; it’s impossible to believe that Chinese villagers are quite as ridiculous and often disgusting as they are made to seem. Much of it is doubtless intended as satire: the narrator, for instance, goes beyond the common and deplorable practice of injecting meat with water to make it swell and go further, by filling animals with water while they are still alive. But the satire is so determinedly exuberant and far-fetched that only readers who mistake extravagant absurdity and garrulity for good writing can be entertained or impressed. Sadly the members of the Nobel Committee seem to belong to the company of such readers.

In short, the real scandal is not that the Committee have given the prize to someone who may be, as Rushdie puts it “a patsy” for a rather nasty regime – though if he is indeed that, it is sad and deplorable – but rather that they have persuaded themselves that this self-indulgent tosh is fine literature and worthy of their prize. You can read a few pages with some amusement, but anyone, other than a reviewer, who reads the book from beginning to end, deserves to be praised for pertinacity if nothing else. Still, each to each. The members of the Nobel Committee think it great stuff. Who knows? They may even have managed to discover that “ideal content” in the novel.