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Sandalwood Death: A Novel (Chinese Literature Today Book Series) Paperback – November 15, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Mo Yan’s recreation of the Boxer Rebellion opens, as it will close, with first-person narratives by voluptuous Meiniang and the four men in her life: her father, an opera singer leading the rebellion against the German railroad workers; her husband, a dull, muscular butcher of dogs and pigs; her father-in-law, the Imperial executioner assigned to punish the rebel leader; and her rich lover, the Magistrate who betrays her father to the foreign invaders where the sandalwood death will be his punishment. The plot has all the ingredients of an opera tragedy, and the monologues that form the opening and closing chapters each begin with lyrics from a Chinese folk opera based on the same story called Sandalwood Death.
Three public executions, at the novel’s beginning, middle, and end, are set pieces of ceremonial horror. Zhao Jia, the Imperial executioner, is such a cold-blooded, cunning, ruthless fellow that only the novel’s first sentence, revealing that the heroine will stab him to death in seven days, gives the reader the courage to read on as he performs hideously cruel public executions as well as shames, abuses and torments the more likeable pawns in this dark, suspenseful love story. Fortunately, the heroine’s not-so-bright husband provides comic relief, blundering along good-naturedly, blind to the obvious, falling out of bed when she screams in her sleep with desire for another man.
Mo Yan is a mesmerizing storyteller and a daring one, constantly showing the other side of characters you thought you knew. He gives away plot turns before they happen. He introduces a character in flashback after showing him publically executed by the hideous slicing death of 500 cuts. Though his irrepressible trademark humor has little opportunity to shine here, the scenes are just as knockdown powerful, and his sense of theatricality knows how to prolong suspense and deliver wallops of surprise as he brings to life a collapsing empire over a hundred years ago, where long beards are sexually attractive, dogs are herded and butchered as food, and public executions are long, horrific torture sessions of satanic ingenuity.
Not until sixty pages from the end of this huge novel does Mo Yan give the reader a first glimpse of the staggering finale he has painstakingly prepared – detail after detail quietly building over hundreds of pages in a mounting tsunami of information come together in a final catastrophe set piece including all the main characters and resolving all the novel’s themes in a once-in-a-lifetime ending no reader will ever, ever forget. – Nick DiMartino

About the Author

Mo Yan (literally, “don’t speak”) is the pen name of Guan Moye. Born in 1955 in Gaomi, Shandong province, he is the author of ten novels and more than seventy short stories. Mo Yan is the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2009 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature.

Howard Goldblatt is an award-winning translator of numerous works of contemporary Chinese literature, including seven novels by Mo Yan, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Product Details

  • Series: Chinese Literature Today Book Series (Book 2)
  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press (November 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0806143398
  • ISBN-13: 978-0806143392
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #919,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mario P. Navetta on February 26, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Not that I consider myself an iota more "sophisticated" than any other reader, but there is no question that Sandalwood Death requires a measure of dedication that would otherwise render the formatting/narration as somewhat unwieldy.

To be certain, it is remarkable in its focused descriptiveness of rural China during the late years of the Qing Dynasty. Going far beyond the physicality of day to day life, Mo Yan's chronicling delves intensively into the individual subjectivity of those destined to live it. Passions are as profound as obeisance can be grandly superficial.

I also believe that a prospective reader would better appreciate the book if he/she were, at the very least, *somewhat* familiar with Chinese history during this period. A slightly more than cursory Wiki search would be helpful. Better yet would be prior interest in one of humankind's most fascinating cultures. Then again, this book is not for everyone.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By DaLaoHu on June 30, 2013
Format: Paperback
This is the third book I have read by Mo Yan. The first was a collection of short stories and the second was Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and while I found Mr. Mo to be an engaging and talented author, neither of those books left me exactly panting for more, so to speak. Still, when I saw this book I decided to give it a try, more from an interest in Chinese history than for any other reason.

And for the first three quarters of the book I found it to be very gripping and compelling. The history has been somewhat altered to fit the story, but that is to be expected. (And as an aside, you do not really have to know much more about Chinese history other than that there have been numerous popular uprising throughout the last two thousand years of Chinese history, including the Yellow Turbans, Red Eyebrows, Taipings, etc., as well as the Brotherhood of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, more commonly known as the Boxers, depicted here. And that many of them have been inspired by semi-religious semi-mythical leaders leading an unlettered rabble and yet coming perilously close to actually overthrowing the established authority). But the depictions of late nineteenth century village life in rural China are both vivid and believable, and the characters (with the exception of the Germans) both well rounded and engaging. As I read through these first three hundred pages or so I kept telling myself that this guy really did deserve the Nobel Prize.

But then to my great disappointment, over the last hundred pages the book fell flat. Now I'm not a blood and guts guy. In general, I would rather avoid reading detailed descriptions of pain and suffering. But in this case it was necessary. Oh, I understand what the author was attempting to do.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Hian Hwee, Lim on August 10, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is not an easy book to read given its translation and the story centred at old China.

This took me 3 weeks to complete (compared to less than a week) given i am a lover of chinese history. The way it is translated made it hard for to comprehend and easy to "give up" after a few chapters.

Well, it is not that Mr Howard Goldblatt is not a good translator but the complexities of the story with its deep county culture make it not easy. In the end, I have to buy Mo Yan's Chinese version of the same title to fully appreciate the beauty of the Gaomi county and what the author's association the cruel Chinese punishment methods with the nuance of the opera.

I gave it 4 stars because the credit I want to give to Mr Goldblatt for the tough assignment he undertook for a lot of Mo Yan's readers to read his works. I read many of Mo's books in English and I must thank Mr Goldblatt for all the fantastic translation.

This is not a book that is easy to read but if you are up to challenge and a great Mo Yan's fan, I don't think you should skip.
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Mo Yan apologizes in the afterword to this novel, saying his style most likely has regressed in the process of writing this novel. I would say that's a bit of intentional self-effacement. Mo Yan attempts to portray his characters' social status and level of education in the vernacular they employ to tell the story from their perspectives. I think he's made an honest attempt at developing rich and unique characters in this novel. Perhaps in some areas of the novel he tired of this and didn't employ as much imagination as he did in other parts, but overall I think he does an excellent job of portraying the executioner Zhaojia, his simple-minded dog-butcher son Xiaojia, the Gaomi Magistrate Qian Ding, and the Shandong Governer Yuan Shikai (who, as we know in history took over control of the Republic of China briefly, after Sun Yat-Sen's passing). The theme of unfilial children is continued in this novel, just as it first appeared in "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out". (It also appears in "Pow!"). Although the novel's title suggests the story's climax lies in what must be one of the most excrutiating ways to be executed, in reading the novel it feels more like the climax lies in the final performance of Sun Bing's opera troupe, before they are massacred. Mo Yan emphasizes in his afterword that the real "star" of this novel is his native land's form of opera, "Maoqiang". I agree.
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