This year's Nobel laureate in literature is an author who somehow manages to write books with brazenly political themes while living in a dictatorship. Mo Yan's latest novel, Pow! is a thinly veiled assault on the frayed moral fabric of that hyper-capitalist country known as Communist China.
The characters in Pow! do awful and disgusting things, most of them involving meat. The residents of Slaughterhouse Village love meat so much (be it donkey meat, Mongolian barbecue or quail teppanyaki) that they build a temple to it.
They fornicate in the presence of their Meat God. They also taint the meat they sell with poisonous preservatives and play all sorts of tricks on unwitting consumers to make more money from it.
We live in an age that scholars characterize as the primitive accumulation of capital, says the venal government boss of Slaughterhouse Village. Just what does that mean? Simply that people will make money by any means necessary, and that everyone's money is tainted by the blood of others.
Pow! illustrates how Communist Party bosses have helped create this new China, a country where moral behavior is no longer in fashion, as the leader of Slaughterhouse Village puts it. And yet Mo, the public intellectual, basically curls up into a ball when it comes to directly criticizing those bosses.
The wide-eyed innocent of Pow! is Luo Xiaotong. He is Mo's Candide, and his love of meat is the motivation that drives the story forward.
In Xiaotong's village, every conceivable kind of animal flesh is sold for human consumption. The locals leave the village's surrounding fields fallow as they buy and sell meat, injecting it with water so it weighs more, and with formaldehyde so that it lasts longer.
Mo has said that the novel draws heavily from his own childhood in rural China in the years after the Cultural Revolution and during the changes fostered by the market economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping.
In Pow!, Xiaotong's austere village life is gradually overwhelmed by an influx of capital, technology and a tectonic shift in values. But Mo's descriptions of these changes are rendered without any hint of sentimentality or nostalgia.
With the notable exception of Xiaotong's father, all the villagers allow themselves to be swept up by the new, corporate-style modernity. They even allow an especially bright, ruthless 10-year-old boy to run their meatpacking plant, under the tutelage of the corrupt boss Lao.
Mo the public figure is careful with words. But Mo the novelist slips past the censors by dressing up his cutting realism in absurd and fantastic clothing. In doing so, he's embracing a long tradition that stretches from Cervantes to the German novelist Gunter Grass.
I'm going to allow Mo the wiggle room he clearly needs because in the end his skill makes Pow! a wild, unpredictable ride — a work of demented and subversive genius.