Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Pow! First impressions of a controversial Chinese literary POWerhouse

Thinking about it, 2013 has to be the ideal time to focus on the big wide world. The last twelve months have, after all, been so bloody British: Jubilee, Olympics, about a dozen pageants, Dickens, Shakespeare, even Scottish independence. There were entire weeks when you wondered if the rest of the globe had shut down completely.

So it’s a relief to pick up a book and travel without leaving your armchair – and a good novel is better than the average airport departure lounge or hotel swimming pool. A trip to China? I was sceptical of reading my first Mo Yan, what with his comments about Chinese state censorship which led to Salman Rushdie calling him a “patsy”. Ouch. But Pow! is a pleasant surprise. A strange, dirty, picaresque novel that struck me as entirely political and hugely critical of Chinese society.

I’m no Mo Yan expert (who is?). But it’s worth recalling that much of what we now consider our own great art was written under British state censorship – Shakespeare included – both moral and political. This isn’t to excuse China’s one party state, but surely each individual artist must address the realities of his time, and work within them, if he is to be heard at all.

And Pow! doesn’t read like an apology for anyone. Told in a complex fashion in two parallel narratives by Luo Xiatong, aged ten and twenty, it describes a corrupt, rural village which to some extent could be anywhere, east or west, in the past three centuries. It’s shocking that this is actually a description of China as recently as the 1990s: a time when its peasant communist society was being swept aside by the crudest most amoral brand of capitalism. The village makes its money from selling meat, any meat – beef, pork, camel, dog, you name it – which the butchers pump with water and formaldehyde to boost profit.

I found it didn’t matter that the book’s construction was a bit strange and rambling. I was travelling an alien landscape and I’d take whatever was coming. What I got was part social commentary, part satire... and a lot of stuff about meat and sex. Yes, the world’s new superpower is eating a lot of pork. But is Mo Yan worth his Nobel? Is anyone?

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