While the jury is still out as to whether the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who is said to have been toeing the party line, truly deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, there is little doubt that his novel “POW!” — with its Rabelaisian carnivalesque language and surrealist narration — rightly belongs among the best of world literature. First published in 2003 as “Forty-one Bombards” (“Sishiyi Pao”), Mo's novel in the English version, rendered beautifully and ingeniously by Howard Goldblatt, has acquired a poetic, or rather, onomatopoetic title: “POW!” True to the spirit of the word, readers of “POW!” are bombarded page after page by the blaring force of a story of carnivorous excess that bares China's soiled bottom.
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The novel is set at an ancient temple in contemporary, post-Mao China. Luo Xiaotong, a 20ish novice wishing to join the monastery, spews out his life story for the attentive ear of an old monk who appears to relish exceedingly these earthy tales of lust, greed, chicanery and carnivorism.
Luo is from a village that goes by the improbable name of Slaughterhouse. Most villagers are professional butchers and avid carnivores who devour meats of all sorts: beef, pork, chicken, donkey, camel, dog, ostrich, goat and so on. Lured by the spirit of enterprising capitalism sweeping through the country, the villagers build a meatpacking plant and try to make a quick buck by creatively injecting water and other chemical fluids into the meat.
Luo, the hungry artist who has invented the best way to "beef up" the beef, is also a champion carnivore. At the tender age of 12, he soundly beats three adult challengers at a meat-eating contest by gobbling down five pounds of flank steak within an hour. A boy who "lives to eat meat," he sticks to the mantra: "Father is close, Mother is dear, but neither matches the appeal of meat!" He is willing to call anyone dad if that person feeds him meat.
Apples don't fall far from the tree. The boy's father, Luo Tong, is also a consummate carnivore who lives a life of sin. "If there's food in your belly," Luo Tong likes to say, "even a pigsty is Heaven. If there's no meat in Heaven, I'm not going there." And he carries on a steamy affair with a woman named Wild Mule, who knows a secret recipe for cooking the tastiest pig head.
Like most of Mo Yan's novels, "POW!" depicts a world of phantasmagoria hovering over the hard clay of reality in rural China, where hardscrabble peasants and other lowly characters, while barely making a living, battle with each other in the game of life and death. They curse brilliantly, plumbing the richness of the Chinese language as never before; they belch loudly, whether or not after a hearty meal; and men take out their "tools" to urinate in front of their opponents as a show of masculine bravado, like a dog peeing to make a claim on a spot however minuscule. The word "pow," in vulgar Chinese slang, also means to screw, to shag, as with a cannon-like phallus.
The powerful Japanese 82 mm mortar, a relic from the Sino-Japanese War found by Luo Xiaotong in his scavenging days, will eventually blow the Slaughterhouse Village into pieces. "POW! the place would go up in smoke." The 41 mortar shells are also symbolically the 41 chapters that constitute the novel, the same number of verbal bombshells that Luo Xiaotong, a boy trapped inside a grown-up man's body, drops on the old monk and the readers alike. In the carnal life he is about to forsake, Luo Xiaotong is also called a "powboy," which in his native dialect means someone who brags and shoots his mouth off. In the afterword, the author characterizes this novel as "the story of a boy prattling on and on about a story." Luo Xiaotong, according to Mo, is "a boy who endlessly spouts lies, a boy whose utterances tend to be irresponsible, a boy who gains satisfaction through the act of narration. Narration is his ultimate goal in life."
In this bawdy comedy of tall lies, oscillating between a fantastic past and a hallucinatory present, the author is the ultimate powboy, who fires a verbal cannon at a world gone awry, a nation, while full of life and drive, charging forward fiercely like a headless fly.
Yunte Huang is the best-selling author of "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History."
By Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt, Seagull, 386 pages, $27.50