Dylan Suher reviews Mo Yan's Pow! and Sandalwood Death

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Seagull Press/University of Oklahoma Press, 2012)

These days, even when something good happens in China, nobody's happy. Guan Moye, who writes under the pseudonym Mo Yan, won the Nobel Prize this year, the first Chinese writer residing in China to receive the honor. In a news conference that day, Mo Yan, looking incipiently nauseous, announced that he planned to celebrate by eating dumplings with his family. When a reporter from Chinese state television asked him later in the year if he was happy, he glumly responded: "I don't know."

In the meantime, the Western press convened a drumhead trial of op-eds, blog posts, and interviews, and subsequently reached a verdict: Mo Yan is a government stooge. Jeffrey Yang, the translator of jailed dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo's poetry, wrote a harsh denunciation of Mo Yan's government cooperation for the New York Times. Perry Link was more balanced but not much more charitable in the New York Review of Books, and Anna Sun wrote "The Diseased Language of Mo Yan" for Kenyon Review Online, the title of which speaks for itself. The Romanian dissident and fellow laureate Herta Müller called the decision to award Mo Yan the prize a "catastrophe." And Liao Yiwu, a writer and outspoken critic of the Chinese government who fled the country on foot, called the decision "a slap in the face". Just like that, what should have been a moment of recognition for the rich tradition of post-Mao Chinese literature dissolved in a cloud of recrimination, opprobrium, and general depression.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding Mo Yan's personal politics, it's easy to forget that Mo Yan was awarded the highest honor that any writer can achieve—or that he's even written anything at all.

The tenor of the discussion has made it difficult to review Mo Yan's work without first discussing his politics. Being treated as an author of literature instead of a political symbol is a privilege, it seems, reserved for Western writers. It should be conceded, however, that his political record is mixed. While it is true that he is a member of the state-controlled Chinese Writers Association, so is every other professional writer in China. It's not like the state lets writers have much of a say in the matter; as the dissident intellectual Ran Yunfei put it, "They keep sending you your salary and saying you're part of the system." But it is also true that he is under no obligation to serve as the Association's vice-chairman, or to defend censorship, or to assert, absurdly, that he's "never heard of there being many Chinese writers in prison".

Conversely, it is true that writers like Liao Yiwu and the exiled Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian made brave, noble choices in opting to openly criticize the government. But it is also true that, as a result of their choices, these writers will be unable to take part in the conversations and debates going on in contemporary China. Open revolt is punished by a total ban on publication within China, leading to oblivion: few Chinese teenagers even know who Gao Xingjian is. Most importantly—and apparently, most controversially—it is certainly true that the China of 2012 is not the China of 1972, or even the China of 1992. Not publicly criticizing the government in 2012 doesn't necessarily mean you support it. There are a range of ethical positions one can take between becoming an exiled dissident and full collaboration with the regime.

By this point, much has been said about what novels Mo Yan should have written or could have written. However, I am more interested in discussing the actually existing literature of Mo Yan, and why the members of the Swedish Academy might have deemed it worthy of recognition. Two of his novels came out in the US in late 2012: Pow!, published by Seagull Press, and Sandalwood Death, put out by the University of Oklahoma Press. Both are translated by Howard Goldblatt [full disclosure: Goldblatt serves as a contributing editor for Asymptote]. Few translators have enjoyed the dominance over one language's contemporary literature that Goldblatt has, and fewer still have given so little reason to quibble with this dominance. Goldblatt has translated all of Mo Yan's novels, and he tends to tone down Mo Yan's storytelling vulgate and intense heteroglossia, which may be why Anna Sun and others feel that the translations are "better" than the original. Both of these novels present formidable translation challenges: Pow! is narrated by a semi-lucid man-child, while Sandalwood Death resonates with the rhyming sing-song of Chinese opera and mimics a range of social linguistic registers. Consider the difficulties inherent in translating a passage as arch and histrionic as this love speech to meat in Pow!:

Only a tiny fraction of all the meat in the world would ever have the good fortune of being consumed by Luo Xiaotong, the boy who understood and loved meat. The excitement of this tubful came as no surprise. As I brought the piece to my mouth, glistening tears gushed from a pair of bright eyes staring passionately at me. I knew that it loved me because I loved it. Love all around the world was a matter of cause and effect. I am deeply moved, meat. My heart is all a-flutter. I honestly wish I didn't have to eat you, but I do.
The passage in the original Chinese, if you can believe it, is even more over the top and even less lucid. Goldblatt is more successful at capturing the voice of Pow! than at meeting the daunting challenge of rendering the rich musicality of Sandalwood Death into English, but both novels are nevertheless beautifully wrought and more or less faithfully transmitted.

Pow! (recently excerpted in The New Yorker) is such an odd egg of a novel that even the publicity note that came with the review copy describes it as "bizarre." A master monk (or a statue) in a dilapidated temple consecrated to a priapic horse-god listens as Luo Xiaotong, an initiate (or a crazy person) ramblingly recounts his childhood in "Slaughterhouse Village," a society of corrupt butchers who inject their meat with formaldehyde. The initiate's father abandons his family for a woman named Wild Mule; he eventually returns to the village with Wild Mule's daughter, and the family uneasily reconciles. As a young boy, Luo is a meat prodigy, gifted with the ability to communicate with meat and to consume endless quantities of it. His talents allow him to rise through the ranks of the village's new meatpacking plant, until his entire life collapses in a riot of violence and sexual scandal. The novel is a carnival in the most literal of senses: a pulsing, schizophrenic blur of insatiable appetites for sex and meat. If this work, with its scenes of cat-kidnapping and talking meat, represents the party line, a whole lot has changed since Mao proposed a "revolutionary culture" in Yan'an.

The other novel, Sandalwood Death, is more openly political. Apparently adapted from a local Shandong opera, Sandalwood Death takes place during the Boxer Rebellion, a violent uprising of anti-imperialist secret societies at the turn of the 20th century. The novel describes the tangle of relationships behind the gruesome execution of Sun Bing, a former opera actor. Sun is motivated to join the rebellion by patriotic indignation, but also by hysterical grief for his murdered family and a desire to take the stage one last time as a glorious martyr. His daughter, Sun Meiniang, is torn between her filial duty to rescue her father and her resentment of a father who abandoned her for a life of theater. Her lover, the upright magistrate Qian Ding, must balance his obligation to the imperial government to see that the execution is carried out with his obligations to the suffering subjects in his care and to Sun Meiniang. These characters struggle to live in a world they did not choose and make the best of the choices that are available to them; they live in the tension between moral appearance and moral action. Sandalwood Death is a novel that asks difficult questions about the aestheticization of traumatic violence, the cost of political activism, and the ethics of political spectacle. It offers few easy answers.

But this ambiguity of Mo Yan's work certainly does not preclude social or political criticism. For one, his novels (particularly Pow!) often seem intensely Buddhist. The animals seem to occupy the same moral space as the humans, who slaughter each other with the same indifference and pointlessness with which they slaughter the animals in their care. Dogs in particular haunt his work—gangs of strays that roam the country, eating human flesh and being eaten by humans in turn. They serve as spectral reminders of the brutal animal nature of man. "In times like this, only the men are dead; the living are dogs," Qian Ding says in Sandalwood Death.

Pow!'s Luo Xiaotong remarks:

"Showing sympathy to a dog was asking to be eaten by it. . . In ancient times, human flesh had probably—no, definitely—been a delicacy for beasts of prey, but in present times a human being eaten by beasts of prey would be turning the world upside down, confusing the roles of eater and eaten,"

The humans in Mo Yan's bleak world are often no more than mangy curs, voracious consumers of flesh who prey on each other.

The government faces censure too, however indirect. The Communist authorities in Pow!, although mostly absent from the picture, clearly sanction and encourage the corruption of Slaughterhouse Village. The villain of Sandalwood Death, the late Qing reactionary Yuan Shikai, is an emblem of central government authority: implacable and intensely cruel, he is concerned only with self-preservation. Those critiques—of a distant, corrupt government that occasionally blows through the lives of the characters like an ill wind—may not meet the exacting ideological standards of the anti-Mo Yan camp's party theoreticians. But to read Mo Yan's work and then conclude that he is apolitical or even propagandistic: in the words of another writer much maligned for his ambiguities, these critics must have ears that cannot hear, eyes that cannot see.

As for the literary merits of Mo Yan's work, I don't share his passion for Chinese corn pone, nor do I even think he's the best writer of his cohort (I much prefer Yu Hua and Su Tong). But I find it hard to deny the beauty of his creative mission. In the face of homogenizing Chinese nationalism and global capitalism, he manages to capture, with the most exacting granularity, the folkways of a tiny, very particular place. In the face of an authoritarian government that monopolizes all history, Mo Yan's work preserves the paths of memory that individuals have cut through a traumatic and terrible past. It is with narration and plotting that Mo Yan truly shines. As he said in his Nobel speech, he is first and foremost a storyteller, with an instinctual sense of how best to foreshadow, omit information, and use narrative viewpoint.

Now, I don't know if Mo Yan "deserves" the Nobel; I'm not quite sure what it means for anyone to "deserve" the Nobel. I do know that what Mo Yan writes is certainly literature, and it is an insult to say otherwise—not to Mo Yan, but to literature. And as someone who loves contemporary Chinese literature—the "poisonous weeds" that have sprouted from the cracks in the arid intellectual concrete of the People's Republic—it is hard for me not to take this full frontal assault on Mo Yan personally. What these critics are essentially arguing is that a literature that I have come to know and love, a literature that has struggled so intensely to creatively communicate and express an experience of life within the confines of the authoritarian state, is all worthless, simply because the writers who wrote it valued reaching a Chinese audience over testifying to a Western one. I could not possibly begrudge Herta Müller or Liao Yiwu their views; these are people who have suffered intensely for literature and for freedom of human expression. They have paid a terrible price for their opinions, and they are entitled to them. But I am admittedly suspicious of critics (or really, the editors who choose these critics) who seem less interested in the art that Chinese artists create or the lives that the Chinese live than in flattening Chinese literature into the flimsy prop of a political cause. They pontificate with troubling certitude about choices that they do not have to make, and ignore nuances that would muddy their crystal-clear concepts of right and wrong. Sometimes, it seems that what these critics want is not literature, but another kind of propaganda: something that will tell them, with none of those pesky ambiguities or artful phrases, what they already know about the world. There are those who are blessed with an unerring (and to others, infuriating) faith in their own view of the world. And then there are the rest of us.

There are those with the knowledge that there is a world that does not correspond to our ideals. We think we know what is right and what is wrong, but we know that we might be wrong about all of that. We try to do the right thing, and sometimes we succeed, but more often we fail, whether because of our own weakness, or because of circumstances beyond our control. And, with the knowledge that the world will disappoint us and that we will disappoint ourselves, we try to draw whatever joy we can from the remaining days we have.

For this imperfect, ambiguous world, we seek, at best, a guide for the perplexed, or, at least, some kind of solace from someone else who muddles through. For us—the rest of us—there is literature.