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POW! by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, the Chinese author and recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been compared to the great Rabelais for his ability to see things in society and comment on them with similar wit and satirical content. His writing is strong and graphic with its emphasis on imagery while still focusing heavily on the development of character and incorporation of historical Chinese events.

In POW!, there are many of the same concepts present as in his other works: high levels of satire with some fascinating commentary on life for the Chinese people, in this case the Han people (that required one or two checks with the aid of Google to better understand some of the concepts being presented), and humour throughout. As someone with very little in the way of historical elements of the Chinese traditions and history, this was a bit of a burden to read at times. Without a doubt, having more knowledge would make this a more indulgent read.

The protagonist of the book is one Luo Xiaotong who is also presented as quite the glutton. Along the way Mo Yan presents him as a lover of cooked meat. In fact, the sensory imagery that is presented with the cooking of various meats, particularly their smells and savoured tastes is quite prominent as a narratological premise. Xiatong’s father has become estranged from the family after a rather sensuous affair with Aunty Wild Mule which has profound impacts on the family left behind.

As Xiaotong explains his story to an old and wizened monk there is an authenticity that is highly felt in the plot. The often haphazard direction fits with the way real life works. Often the linear progressions presented in novels are reflective and contrived from a series of rather disjointed elements, only becoming fluent with the benefit of hindsight, but not so with POW! The reader is encouraged to journey with the character as the events unfold and develop. It is not difficult to see how Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize with such skillful use of prose.

Overall, the aspect that stands out the most in this piece of writing is the ability to incorporate humour effortlessly into the narrative. All facets of life are put under the spotlight and while some come out wanting, others use the skill they have to create a remarkable feat in adverse conditions. The only criticism is the brevity with which things are wrapped up at the end, however, perhaps it is a technique to symbolically reflect many of the events in the story.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Seagull Books