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 six other novels by Mo Yan.