BY ANDREW HERTZBERG
Pow! is the most recently translated work by Chinese author and the 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan (莫言). His works are often compared to Central- and South-American magical realism and weave in the more surrealistic and folkloric aspects of literature into settings and characters based in contemporary reality. His works have also been compared to Kafka and he has cited Gunter Grass as a direct inspiration.
The story itself involves Luo Xiaotong in two timelines: his upbringing in Slaughterhouse Village (presumably in Shandong Province, Northeast China), and the present, at age twentyish, recalling his childhood to a stoic monk at a temple near the village. The town as a whole, and young Luo in particular, are obsessed with meat: cow, pig, horse, dog, camel, etc. The descriptions of slaughter and consumption of meat can be vile to the faint of heart. For those that can (ahem) stomach it, the story recounts how Luo’s father left him and his mother for another woman, leaving them to fend for themselves, mostly as foragers and unable to enjoy the meat that Luo had become obsessed with as a child. Eventually, his father returns with a daughter born from this other woman, who connects with Luo immediately. Her love of meat is nearly as immense as his, and the majority of her dialogue echoes his. Despite the father’s infidelity and illegitimate child, the family reconciles, and actually teams up with a local rival to create the most successful and efficient slaughterhouse in the area.
Mo writes in the afterword that he intended to evoke the idea of never having to grow up. Luo Xiaotong, as only a twelve year old child, essentially runs the slaughterhouse built in his village, finds new ways to deceitfully inject water into the meat for a higher profit, and defeats men more than twice his age in a thoroughly disgusting but comically presented meat-eating contest. In fact, when it comes to meat, Luo is the Will Hunting of decoding what animal it came from, not only from taste but of even just smell; he can even decipher which animal bones originally belonged to.
As the novel unfolds, Luo struggles with one of life’s eternal questions: what does one do when everyone he’s ever loved is gone? Early on, we learn of the death of his illegitimate sister that he still felt so connected to, and Luo reveals to the monk that he has given up meat between the time of his story and the present. Pow! becomes a tale of revenge, eventually spiraling into the gore of a Jacobean horror tale. Unfortunately, while the rising tension was enough to make me frantically want to reach the conclusion, I was left a bit unfulfilled by the hurried ending and seemingly forced resolution. But the description of setting in this time period is quite enthralling, combing elements of ancient China (detail of ancient customs and traditional funeral processions) with modernization, exploration into the unfortunate poverty of much of rural China, and the paradox created by the gap between rich and poor: Luo and his family hate city-dwellers while they simultaneously covet the idea of joining an urban class that knows how to take advantage of global markets. What was perhaps most surprising about the book was Mo Yan ‘s vulgarity. Aside from the Scorcese-esque foul-mouthed insults constantly hurled between family members and neighbors, characters seem to constantly be pissing in the direction of someone or into their food to insult them. While Yan is praised for blurring the line between myth and reality, hopefully that is not something he has too much experience with firsthand.
To read a translated work is to read the translator as much as the author. This is the ninth work of Yan’s that Howard Goldblatt has translated. Naturally, Goldblatt is someone whom Mo trusts with his work, but especially for a language so disparate from English, it’s hard to wonder what is missing from a work. As for the translation, I was confused as to why Goldblatt left words of measure (li for mile, jin for kilogram) untranslated sometimes. And there were many typos; perhaps the book was rushed to press to coincide with Mo Yan’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize?
Outside of these slip-ups, Goldblatt did an exceptional job in the translation, providing a conduit for Mo’s sense of humor, poetry, and the conflicting forces of imagination and reality. From the beginning, there are the multiple definitions and sounds that the book’s title conjures up. With the exclamation point added the word POW! incites an image of an explosion. In fact, the original title is 四十一炮, sishiyi pao (Forty One Bombs). So there’s a direct phonetic translation which is a serendipitous intersection between the language barriers. And before the book even begins is an epigraph: “Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot ‘Powboys,’ but every word in what I’m telling you is the unvarnished truth.” While it is important to keep this in mind about our narrator, whether Xiaotong is a Powboy or isn’t doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mo Yan shows us something new.
As important as the role of meat is in Pow!, the role of water in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is equally important. The main character becomes the head of a bottled-water facility, a hot commodity in a country where much of the water is unfit for consumption. Unlike the rural setting of Pow! though, the very first step to getting filthy rich is to move to the city. Next is to get an education (in a school where the teachers are often wrong and stubborn) and not to fall in love. Spoiler alert: he falls in love. Throughout the book, the lives of our main character and the “pretty girl” weave in and out of phase like a sine wave chasing a cosine wave mapped on the same graph. They each reach a level of success in their respective fields, while never quite getting the timing right, but occasionally running into each other for romantic encounters.
While Hamid’s other books explicitly mention a specific setting, How to… keeps not only the setting vague, but characters names, “global soft drink brands”, and much else. In this way he keeps the theme universal, or at least continental (Hamid grew up in Pakistan, but never explicitly states a country as a setting in this novel). Likewise, time is vague. The short book takes place over 70 years of one characters life, but never mentions which years these are. Even looking for technological clues can be difficult. In the character’s early life, he mentions a small black and white tv not hard to imagine an impoverished Pakistani village only gaining access to in 2013. Likewise, towards the end of the book, the main character mentions the aquatic plop that accompanies the end of an online video chat which can only reference Skype. Conversely, it’s not hard to believe that each chapter can represent a different character all taking place simultaneously in the present; in an interview with The New Yorker, Hamid points out the book could very well be both.
The term “Rising Asia” brings to mind the all too ubiquitous and condescending phrase “First World Issues.” This phrase is condescending in its assumption that only the First World can exist with these perceived “issues.” Yes, early on the main character is infected with Hepatitis E, nobody knows the comfort of a private bathroom (or privacy at all), his grandmother is toothless, etc. These can all be considered “Third World Issues.” But so can failing marriages and infidelity, feeling isolated within society, confusion about what path to take while growing up, being awkward around girls. Further, the steps to getting rich in rising Asia aren’t too far off from what it takes to succeed in the plateaued West: move to the city, get an education, “Work for Yourself,” “Dance with Debt,” “Learn from a Master,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat” (or is that just my Chicago perspective that makes that last one a necessity?).
As a writer, Hamid does a wonderful part of not only establishing the main character, but sporadically adding scope with unexpected perspectives and timelines, for example a teacher that doesn’t want to teach, or viewing a scene from a satellite. It’s these unexpected paths that Hamid follows that make for a well-rounded story (despite the gaps of time between chapters) and a quick one at that. The second-person aspect and fast pace of the novel makes it hard not to compare to the work of Junot Diaz, although with less vulgarity.
Like two of Diaz’s signature short stories (“How to Date a Whitegirl…” and “This is How You Lose Her”), the book is cleverly presented as a self-help book presented in the second person and is constantly aware of its own Bookness. While the main storyline focuses on that of which the title promises, it is more universally applicable as a dance between writer and reader. In that same New Yorker interview, Hamid discusses this dance, recognizing that the “you” presented isn’t some fictionalized character, but the audience he is writing for himself. In this case, Hamid flips the conventional writers proverb to “tell, don’t show.” Conversely, Mo Yan is a pen name which translates to “don’t speak,” which is allegedly what he was told as a child growing up in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While both of these novels take place in what the West considers conservative or traditional cultures, both authors actually find a way to be original, challenging the concepts of what makes a good story in both local cultures and global society.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer currently hibernating in Chicago; he recently reviewed A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu, as well as a dual review of Heroines by Kate Zambreno and The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin. He is devoting 2013 to escaping his literary comfort zone. Read an excerpt from Pow!and an excerpt from How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which will be released March 5.