On Oct. 11, the Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and two months later his new novel, “POW!”, demonstrates for Americans why he deserved to win. It’s a vibrant, visceral novel that is both personal and political, realistic and surrealistic, funny and shocking. The explosive title cries out — “POW!” — but it is also a subtle display of narrative wizardry.
Like many of Mo Yan’s earlier novels, it is set in the poverty-stricken rural China in which he grew up. A troubled 19-year-old named Luo Xiaotong has decided to abandon his vagabond life and become a monk at a temple near his home town, Slaughterhouse Village. But before he does so, he wants to tell his life story to the wise monk who tends the temple.
The novel alternates between 2000 and a decade earlier. As Luo tells how he and his tigerish mother struggled to survive after his father left them for a woman nicknamed Wild Mule, only to return sheepishly five years later with an illegitimate daughter in tow, he reveals his obsession with meat. Determined to save enough money to build a house and demonstrate she doesn’t need a man, Luo’s mother deprives him of meat, which becomes in Mo Yan’s hands a wide-ranging metaphor for obsession, sex and politics. Luo is convinced that the world’s population — animal as well as human — can be divided into “those who eat meat and those who don’t” and who consequently play the “roles of eater and eaten.”