Mo Yan's black magic realism

It is hard to imagine a more cynical world than Slaughterhouse Village, the setting of Pow!, Nobel prize winner Mo Yan's latest work to be published in translation. Its farmers and butchers inject meat with whatever makes it weigh more and look good, from water to formaldehyde. They provide ''hormonal cows, chemical sheep, garbage pigs and prescription dogs'', cruelly slaughtered, to a ready market. When they realise there's a world of urban suckers who'll pay premium for organic produce, they fake that as well. Slaughterhouse Village thrives in its crookedness, easily corrupting all who come to expose or limit its murderous commerce.

Chief of the cynics is the village head himself, Lao Lan, the locality's meat-doctoring pioneer. According to Lao Lan, there are two types of people you should never offend: ''punks and hoodlums, the so-called lumpenproletariat'' and ''ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children … kicked about like mangy dogs'', the latter as they're likely to ''grow up to be thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers''.

The narrator of Pow!, Luo Xiaotong, is the son of Luo Tong, enemy of Lao Lan and the only incorruptible man in the village. His father's eye weighs cattle more accurately than any scale. Yet Luo Tong deserts his wife and son to run away with a woman known as Wild Mule, leaving the suddenly impoverished and kicked-about narrator to grow up to prove Lao Lan's point.

Meat is the monstrously gluttonous Luo Xiaotong's one true love - and it's mutual. Meat whispers to him, coos at him, waves its little hands and proclaims its love to him. The only person who means as much to him as meat is his little half-sister Jiaojiao, whose name is homonymous with ''to chew''. Meat dances for her, too. It can't end well.

Luo relates his family's grim, violent and surreal history to an implacable Buddhist monk with osmanthus-tinged sweat and a yogic exercise routine that incorporates auto-fellatio.

Outside the temple, which is dedicated to a sex god with testicles the size of papayas, the village gears up for the great Meat Appreciation Parade and 10th annual Carnivore Festival. A fleshly wraith who reminds him of his father's lover makes her distracting way through the temple; ostriches go on a rampage and are beheaded; a woman in a micro-skirt begs a gangster/official to spare the life of her father; orgies erupt and Luo witnesses his own apotheosis as Meat God.

If Mo Yan is in debt to magic realism, his is a very black magic. It is the black of grease traps, of flies, filth and excrement, and of the dark stench of a sunless, all-conquering corruption. It is the blackness of a world without empathy or morality, in which all relations are based in commerce, and all commerce based in the flesh: a world ruled by crude appetite both carnivorous and carnal.

The narrator freely admits that if he'd been born ''in revolutionary times'' he'd have joined the revolution ''for a plateful of meat'' - and that he'd have surrendered to the enemy for two. The Buddhist temple to which he comes seeking a redemption of sorts is endlessly invaded, violated, its roof punctured, its holy man literally pissed on.

If Pow! lets no one off its butcher's hook, its women are carved up with a particularly sharp blade into fleshpots, harridans, hags, shrews, mothers, temptresses and fleshpot/harridan/hag/shrew/mother/temptresses. They are assemblages of tempers, desires, smells and the flesh to which these adhere. Many are simply there to strip off their clothes and lie down, willing as meat. Like meat, they inspire revulsion as well as desire. ''Loose women have always disgusted me,'' the narrator declares, aroused. Or ''… she made my face itch. She ought to be shot.'' Then there's this, surely qualifying Mo Yan for the next annual Bad Sex in Fiction award: ''Her breasts, like ripe mangoes, sag slightly in the centre to form fluid arcs, the nipples rising gracefully, like the captivating mouths of hedgehogs.''

Pow! ricochets from repulsive to astonishing to funny to confounding, the last quality amplified by Howard Goldblatt's exoticising translation. Insisting on ''niang'' and ''dieh'' instead of the perfectly equivalent ''mum'' and ''dad'' is one thing, but what's an English-language reader to make of ''the Qingyi'' who mounts an opera stage - couldn't this archetypal role have simply been translated as ''the Virtuous Woman''? In another passage, someone curses: ''Hick turtles!'' I'd have written ''Stupid pricks!'', which is closer to the sense of it in Chinese. Mo Yan's streaming consciousness throws up enough challenges of its own without the addition of fresh roadblocks.

Pow!, on the other hand, is an inspired rendering of the Chinese word ''pao'', cannon (or cannon shot). Pao can mean a lie or tall tale. It is also slang for f--- or masturbate. You'll find every kind of pao in Pow!.

Like most of Mo Yan's writing, Pow! defies any simplistic or clear ideological reading. Yet its implicit critique of contemporary Chinese society and culture, including political culture, is clear and devastating. Meat and other food contamination scandals have erupted with sickening regularity in China; selective reporting by a tightly controlled media and pervasive corruption have thus far defeated all solutions.

If China enjoyed a free press and more-responsive polity, Pow!, published in China in 2003 and the winner of China's richest literary prize, might have done for Chinese food safety (and vegetarianism) what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did for America's meat-packing industry (and vegetarianism) in the early 20th century.

When Mo Yan won the Nobel prize for literature last year, a storm of controversy blew up in and outside China. Critics castigate him for cosying up to the Communist Party and failing to advocate for another Chinese Nobel laureate, the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, and others suffering from censorship and repression. Supporters argue that Mo Yan should be judged by his formidable opus, and that his politics are on the page. Mo Yan himself has declared: ''I've always taken pride in my lack of ideology, especially when I'm writing.''

In 1930, the great essayist Lin Yutang wrote: ''China is being ruined by our farcical view of life, by our ruthless realism and humour, by our tendency to turn everything and anything into a joke, by our inability to take anything seriously, not even when it concerns the salvation of our country.'' Pow!

Linda Jaivin is the author of eight books including A Most Immoral Woman and The Monkey and the Dragon.


Mo Yan

Seagull Books, 386pp,


This story Mo Yan's black magic realism first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.