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Maya Jaggi

Slaughterhouse Lives

By Mo Yan (Translated by Howard Goldblatt)
(Seagull Books 386pp £18)

The award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan last December, when he became the first Chinese citizen to win, triggered outrage among some dissidents and activists because of his perceived proximity to the state. His reticence in backing persecuted writers is bound to dismay campaigners. But to dismiss 'state-sanctioned' authors as stooges is misguided. It underestimates the literary strategies devised in mainland China for evading brutal sanctions against self-expression. As Gao Xingjian, the only other Chinese-language writer to win the Nobel in Literature (as a French citizen in 2000), once told me: 'It's under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.'

Born in 1955, Guan Moye derives his ironic pen name (Mo Yan means 'Don't speak') from his loquacious boyhood during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when his parents warned him of the perils of gabbing. 'You will find everything I need to say in my works,' he said in his Nobel address. Most are set in his native Gaomi in northeast China's Shandong province, where he was a farm boy and cowherd. Impressed by William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, he fashioned Gaomi into his Macondo, a 'microcosm of China, even of the whole world'.

Pow!, originally published in 2003, is a bravado and blackly comic satire that telescopes decades of Chinese history. Set ostensibly in the post-Mao Reform era of the 1980s and early 1990s, its timeline is blurred by a mendacious narrator - a 'Powboy' or fibbing braggart, who looks back on his childhood from the year 2000. Luo Xiaotong, now twenty and once the 'world's most gluttonous boy', tells his story to a Wise Monk in a ruined temple, as he bids to become a Buddhist novice. While his village, named Slaughterhouse, grew rich on water-injected products, his famished childhood spawned an insatiable appetite for meat. After his father 'ran off with his slut' - Aunty Wild Mule, who haunts the boy's fantasies - his 'skinflint' mother, a tractor-driving scrap merchant who dresses like a 'station porter', was too mean to put meat on the table. Among his cravings are pig's ears with mashed garlic and sesame oil: 'no fat, not much grease and tiny little bones that crunch nicely'.

Once his contrite father returns home five years later with Xiaotong's step-sister, the choice menus (vegetarians may demur) turn to stomach-churning excess, as the village shifts from small-scale butchering to mechanised slaughter. For the head man and corrupt official, Lao Lan, who doctors putrid meat with formaldehyde, there is 'no crime in being greedy but there is in being wasteful'. The 12-year-old Meat Boy experiments in the United Meatpacking Plant by pumping live cattle with water. As Japanese colour TVs arrive in the village, urban palates grow more refined, demanding exotic camel and peacock meat. Dogs vanish into the

water-treatment building, where an infusion of water would bloat them out of shape, disrupt their ability to walk and make their eyes sink. Then it would be off to the kill rooms, where they'd be bludgeoned, skinned alive, disembowelled and packaged to be sent into town as a tonic for men who longed for hard-as-steel erections.

In a parallel, phantasmagorical narrative, Xiaotong dreams up a Carnivore Festival, and stages an opera, From Meat Boy to Meat God. The narratives converge in apocalypse, as he fires 41 shells from a salvaged Japanese mortar at Lan and the entire village. At times chaotic and indigestible, the hallucinatory passages can be tedious distractions from the main fare. But the novel's still centre is Xiaotong's father, a rare refusenik, who retreats to a meditation platform.

Echoes of the man-made famine of 1959-62, with its industrial-scale deaths, would not be lost on Chinese readers; nor would the resonance with other 20th-century slaughters ('During my tenure, thousands of cows made their death-march through the meat-cleansing building'). Along with Maoist collectivisation rampant consumer capitalism, Pow! targets any inhuman logic and the jargon that cloaks it. For Xiaotong's mother, 'Crabs go where the currents take them ... If others inject water and we don't, the only thing that proves is how stupid we are.' The boy takes to such reasoning like a hog to the trough, describing harrowing brutality against animals as organic 'cleansing'. His father says: 'Son, the way I see it, your unique talent isn't eating meat, but twisting false logic until it seems true.'

In Howard Goldblatt's pitch-perfect translation, Rabelais and Swift meet earthy Chinese proverbs ('Donkey droppings are shiny on the outside'; 'You fart three times for every time you kowtow'). In an afterword, Mo Yan confirms The Tin Drum (1959) as an inspiration, but rather than refusing, like Oskar, to grow up, Xiaotong has a child's imagination in an adult body (at one point he suckles on Aunty Wild Mule's breast milk). Günter Grass, whom I once asked about his influences, stressed the Spanish-Arab picaresque, in which 'the era is reflected in concave and distorting mirrors'. The picaro in Pow! is no hero of the downtrodden, but a greedy, hubristic imp, whose infantile appetites mirror those of a society in an accelerated drive from starvation to superfluity. Careening from hunger to nausea, the novel asks the reader to question his or her own cravings, along with the compulsions of history and its self-made gods. In Pow!, grotesque eating contests culminate in the vomiting of fritters or flesh, while the crowds follow blindly those with the biggest appetites - whether for food or power.

Mo Yan's Nobel address recalled how his parents' lessons were sometimes lost on a boy swayed by the baying collective. He threw stones at peasants, or informed on a fellow pupil simply for standing apart - childhood actions that haunt him still. I was reminded of Grass's lifetime of 'working through' his teenage stint in Nazi uniform. Whatever Mo Yan's public stances, an intimate grappling with conscience nourishes this humane, funny and ferocious novel.

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Maya Jaggi's cultural journalism and criticism gained her an honorary doctorate from the Open University in 2012. She is chair of the Man Asian Literary Prize, to be awarded in Hong Kong in March.

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