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Writing for the people?

Reviewed: Pow! by Mo Yan.

Last year the controversial Chinese novelist Mo Yan, in a Stockholm press conference before receiving the Nobel prize for literature, compared censorship to airport security checks. I argued at the time that the Nobel laureate’s stance on the necessity of censorship was unforgivable. Last week Mo consented to his first interview with foreign press since receiving the Nobel. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Mo broke silence to provide a vigorous defence: "I have emphasized repeatedly that I am writing on behalf of the people, not the party."

As his first novel to arrive in English translation since the Nobel debacle, does Pow! shed any light on Mo Yan’s political mystique? Does its defiant use of hallucinatory affect absolve it of a lack of political consciousness, or is it quietly doing its bit to uphold the Party’s erasure of China’s traumatic history? The disturbing confessional of Luo Xiaotong, who narrates his life to a monk in a crumbling temple, weaves together themes of corrupt local officialdom, China’s deep rural poverty and a village’s transformation into a gargantuan meat processing plant. In his afterword, Mo cites his debt to Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum. Grass’ Oskar, a boy whose mental age progresses but body doesn’t, is reversed by Mo’s Luo who keeps his child’s mind in a grown body.

Mo describes Pow! as autobiographical. The setting itself mirrors Mo’s rural Shandong upbringing. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Mo thanked "the fertile soil that gave birth to me and nurtured me. It is often said that a person is shaped by the place where he grows up. I am a storyteller, who has found nourishment in your humid soil." But the novelist also warns that his protagonist is singularly unreliable. Luo is a "powboy" – particularly prone to lie and boast. The kaleidoscopic narrative itself draws on a fantastical vein of ghosts and fox fairies, via which Mo’s characters are frequently reduced to their violent, animal appetites.

With the departure of her husband, Luo’s mother attempts to save money to build her own house and in doing so, subjects her son to a tortuous deprivation of meat. Luo’s consequent perpetual lust for meat is elevated to a central vehicle for ironic observation and sexual craving: "I knew the meat preferred the feel of my skin. When I gently picked up the first piece, it gave out a joyful moan and trembled in my hand." But this story is in turn repeatedly crashed by a series of manic appearances, from the "Carnivore Festival’s Meat Appreciation Parade" through to the staging of an opera "From Meat Boy to Meat God". Illusory visitations surrounding Luo’s surrealistic narrative propel the novel towards a literally explosive finale in which Luo fires off 41 old Japanese Army mortar shells.

Does this visceral orgy of butchery point to disturbing trends within the whole spectrum of modern Chinese literary culture? With its heavy dose of hallucinatory realism, critics have argued that Mo’s literary landscaping escapes the very real problems of contemporary China and that his crude strokes can even be seen as a symptom of an increasingly marketised writing culture. It is hard to square this with Pow!’s dark, satirical take on the violent, materialist and morally corrupt undercurrents of society. The village’s meat factory spends a vast proportion of the novel coming up with new ways to disguise its produce, from injecting water to increase its weight to applying formaldehyde to keep it fresh. Luo’s ingenious contribution to this is to suggest filling the animals with water while still alive. As he proudly proclaims: "the move from post-slaughter to pre-slaughter injection was nothing less than revolutionary, a turning point in animal slaughter history."

The ways in which Mo’s writing manages to fully align itself with official censorship rules has troubled many critics, fuelled largely by that very Western predilection for the "banned in China" label. But there are surely more nuanced ways of talking about Mo than stridently taking his apparent political cronyism to task or accusing his Western critics of cultural imperialism. From its reflections on capitalism’s moral vacuum to its invocation of China’s history of famine, Pow!’s taste for the grotesque offers a bitter vision of contemporary China as a whole.

Those in search of a West-centric conception of Mo have often called him China’s Faulkner, but perhaps this is the root of the problem. At its best, Mo’s brand of highly ambiguous satire mocks all concerned. Wang Shuo, the best-selling sensationalist author of tough Beijing working-class narratives, once crudely remarked to the New Yorker: "Now Liu Xiaobo (the dissident Chinese writer) is in a labour camp and I am here (in a Beijing disco). I was proved right. A writer is a writer. He should stay away from politics." Certainly there are many Chinese writers contentedly sitting in a gilded cage. It would be a mistake to definitively say this of Mo Yan’s slippery writing.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong