Book Review: Pow! by Mo Yan

BY PHOEBE WALKER

         Pow!, translated into English for the first time since its original publication in 2003, is a novel of absurd excesses in both language and plot. The narrative loosely (and I mean loosely: Nobel laureate Yan’s brand of magical social realism is one that not all readers will be at home with) follows the childhood of a young Chinese boy, Xiaotong, growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, where the inhabitants earn their livelihoods by injecting animal carcasses with water. This is a book saturated with meaty imagery, deftly and vividly translated by Howard Goldblatt. While sometimes poetic, such as the description of cattle that gleam “like giant pieces of glazed pottery”, it is more often scurrilous, even nauseating, a stream of grease smeared faces “covered in grey lumps, like a plucked chicken”, bloated bodies and stews soured with human urine.

         Xiaotong’s own flesh-obsessed gaze is unerringly sharp, to the extent that the continual oily imagery of braised pigs’ heads and dog hotpots can begin to make the reader feel uncomfortably overstuffed. This isn’t the only aspect of Pow! that may prove indigestible – the narrative is at times disarmingly erratic. Each chapter is framed by the narrative of the adult Xiaotong, who spins the story of his younger years to a Wise Monk. The childhood narrative is febrile enough, beginning with a father who vanishes into the arms of another woman, sheepishly returning five years later with a new daughter in tow. The family’s rise to prominence as directors of a new meat-processing plant, aided and abetted by the Village Chief, Lao Lan, ends in a brutal denouement and a bizarrely exacted revenge.

The reader is stretched to the limits of credulity by this tale of betrayal, greed, power, intelligence, technology, tradition and family loyalty. The frame narrative then piles on the absurdity, as we take a whistle-stop tour of modern China in all its lurid and often scatological glory, where the dead reappear as erotic, menacing ghosts, pampered little emperors gorge themselves to death and movie stars commit murder – and these are just a few examples from a parade of the surreal and the grotesque.

Critics of Yan’s work berate him for refusing to engage with some of the moral and political turpitude of modern China, and are particularly scathing about his reportedly excellent relationship with the Communist Party. In his afterword, Yan states cautiously “What about ideology? About that I have nothing to say”. Yet without the prop of ideology, Pow!’s narrative sags under its own engorged weight, filled with uproarious characters who maintain a frustrating silence about questions of human and animal cruelty, inequality, overconsumption, and the farcical culture of officialdom.

Pow! is a feast of gluttonous imagery, and the narrative’s hectic exuberance and absurdity is undeniably absorbing and, at times, extremely funny. But, like most feasts, it may leave you feeling rather uncomfortable when you’ve finished.

 Pow! by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt, is published by Seagull Books, RRP £18.

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