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Reviewing POW!

Mo Yan and the Use of Satire

by RON JACOBS

Since receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, Chinese writer Mo Yan has been subjected to a torrent of criticism from western reviewers and other scribes.  Most of this criticism focuses on what they perceive to be a lackluster criticism of the Chinese government by Yan.  While this piece is not designed to be a rebuttal to those critics, suffice it to say I think these critics are missing the point.  Whether this is because they have a certain political position to defend (one that ignores the censorship and authoritarianism in the West while probably exaggerating these phenomena in China) or because they don’t understand satire, I am not sure.  The result, however, has been that many of the articles discussing his work since he won the Nobel do not discuss his work at all, just the reviewer’s perception of Yan’s politics.

While I am in no way an apologist for the government of China or the excesses of the government of Mao, the assumptions these reviewers base their arguments on show an abysmal failure to perceive Chinese history and society in any terms other than those propagated by the American Heritage Institute and its neoliberal compatriots.  In a recent interview, Yan discusses his role in Chinese society and the role of writers.  He points to the mistakes of Maoism and his continuing belief in its utopian vision.  He explains his reluctanc20121222_bkp504e to speak publicly, preferring his fiction to speak for him instead.  As for representing China, he remarks: “Those who can really represent China are digging dirt and paving roads with their bare hands.”

Reading Mo Yan, I am reminded of the late Egyptian author Nahguib Mahfouz and his tales of Cairo. The multitude of interwoven tales in The Cairo Trilogy is much more than the sum of their parts. Mahfouz relates the story of a street, a neighborhood and the people who eat, worked, sleep, make love and otherwise live there.  The more one reads the more one becomes a part of the neighborhood described. The reader is of course never a participant in the entire sense that the characters on the pages are.  Instead, the reader is someone who hangs out there every day and watches what goes on. Mo Yan’s novels provide the same feeling and sense of participation in the villages and roads he locates his tales.

Yan’s novels are multifaceted affairs that, at first glance, seem to ramble all over the place with no apparent thread to tie the stories he tells together.  Full of animal and human characters, Yan writes of their daily lives, their relationships familial and otherwise, their relationship to authority and so much more.  There is a bit of Chinese folktale in his telling and a tongue-in-cheek use of Confucian and Maoist wisdom and insight.  Animals and humans exchange places and traditional arrangements are upended.  Full of humor, Yan’s books reveal a mind not afraid of playfulness and a pen with an uncanny ability to pull the reader into the intricacies of that which we call a simple life.

I recently finished one of the most recent of Yan’s novels to be translated into English, POW!  The story is told by the main protagonist to a monk at a decaying temple devoted to a half man-half horse god with the genitalia of the horse.  This god is a god of sexual prowess.  The tale he tells is the story of a family in a Chinese village where almost everyone is involved in the raising, butchering and selling of meat.  The primary narrator is the son, who sees everything with an arrogance common to youth and a wisdom more akin to a jaded adult.  His father leaves for another woman.  His mother is quite prideful and pretends to forget about her spouse completely. The father eventually returns with a daughter from the other woman.  This is when the narrator’s life begins to attain success.  Yan does not satirize only the gods.  He also has fun with the way they are constantly reinterpreted to extoll the virtues of the authorities and celebrate new enterprises. It’s not just China and its capitalist road being parodied here. It is the entire world where gods are made to serve capital.

The father is an honest man unable and unwilling to be untrue to himself. The son represents the new youthful, capitalist china, willing to manipulate the laws and his compatriots in the pursuit of money. For him, truth is malleable and subjective; much like the pervasive advertising capitalism requires to sell its products.  His teacher is the son of a landlord disgraced after the success of the revolution. The tale is a story of the new China, where the reigning value is profit.  Nothing is sacred except profit.  Everything is fair; cheating, manipulation of religious beliefs, whatever it takes to make profit.  There is a parade newly designed to extoll the virtues of the village’s meat products, dyed and pumped up with filler as they are.  This day is called Slaughterhouse Day and Yan’s description of the Day’s parade is a clever parody of every holiday parade that substitutes merchandising for tradition and advertising for meaning. It could be Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade Yan is describing as easily as it is the manufactured feast day he relates.

Pointed and humorous elements are essential to clever satire.  Mo Yan is a master at writing in this manner.  Too bad his critics don’t seem to understand it; or just don’t want to.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the forthcoming novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.