Meat and Mayhemby Susan Buttenwieser
Mo Yan, POW! (Seagull Books, 2012)
Chinese author Mo Yan’s latest novel, POW!, is a fabulist and surreal tale of meat, murder, and mayhem. Set in and around the Gaomi countryside in Shandong Province, a location similar to where Mr. Mo himself grew up, the narrative follows the travails of Luo Xiatong, a boy growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, “where everywhere you looked there was meat on the hoof and meat on the slab, bloody hunks of meat and washed-clean chunks of meat, meat that’d been smoked and meat that hadn’t, meat that’d been injected with water and meat that hadn’t.”
Luo Xiatong has an insatiable appetite , but after his father runs off with another woman, his mother—a middle peasant’s daughter who’d been brought up to “never live beyond her means”—refuses to spend money on meat . Her stance is even more poignant when we lear n her own father squandered their savings on land after the land reform period.
The novel is laden with graphic sensory details that help bring to life a page-turning meat eating contest, the water-cleansing of the animals’ insides, and a rampage at the end, with images so vivid that the book almost feels at times like a slasher movie. The meat seems to be a metaphor for westernization, with POW! serving as warning of its side effects. For example, characters die from eating too much meat at the Carnivore Festival.
Mr. Mo himself, the author of 11 novels, seems apprehensive about Western culture. He is vice chair of the state-run Chinese Writers’ Association, and the first non-dissident Chinese national to be chosen for the Nobel Prize in Literature which he won last year, and clearly reluctant to speak out against his government. During his acceptance speech, he chose not to criticize the Chinese government for its imprisonment of the 2010 Nobel winner, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, resulting in an international outcry. He has refused to sign a petition urging Lui Xiaobo’s release and said that some censorship is necessary. Salman Rushdie referred to him as a “patsy to the regime.” And Perry Link o f the New York Review of Books felt that he did not deserve the prize. Evan Osnos ’s apologia for Mo in the New Yorker argued that the author was caught in a trap where “he was being asked to take a stand that would...alienate one side or another.”
Is the novel a satire, a thinly veiled criticism of modern-day China? Howard Goldblatt, his translator for the past 20 years, says that much of Mr. Mo’s work, including POW!, is based on his peasant childhood, which was in the decade following the Cultural Revolution.
Maybe the clues can be found in this passage, hinting at an explanation of the title: “Children who boasted and who shot off their mouths were called powboys. That nickname didn’t cause me any shame though. It actually made me proud.”
The novel’s afterward, “Narration is Everything,” offers more :
A good many people will...wish they never had to grow up.... The desire to stop growing is rooted in fear of the adult world...and of the passage of time...writing this novel was my attempt to stop the wheel of time from turning... The conflict between a fear of growing up and its inevitability is the yeast that gives rise to a novel.