Every day Sun Meiniang brings dog meat and other fruits of his knife’s labors to her gandieh, or sugar daddy, a local magistrate, who takes her body, too. Their transactional sex is equity Sun Meiniang hopes to cash in to save her father, but from the moment her father is arrested the gandieh becomes mysteriously hard to reach.
Finally, there is Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, who arrives near the beginning of the book bearing a bloody and secret past as a government executioner. He brags he has made enough heads roll to fill several wicker baskets.
“Sandalwood Death” is a polyphonic novel, told in its first half from several perspectives and in the latter portion by an omniscient narrator. Sun Meiniang’s section is the most vivid and illuminating. Her voice is indulgent, cruel, possessed with pride, yet full of terror; even though her father beat her mother, she is determined not to let the old man be killed as an example. Her quest to secure his rescue is desperate and heartbreaking.
The march to his death, like the build-up to Cromwell’s show trials in Hilary Mantel’s “Bring up the Bodies,” has a malevolent kind of momentum, underscored by the occasional rhymes that nod to the book’s opera origins. But while death in England came with one swift blow in that period, the punishment as described in “Sandalwood Death” is sadistic and horrifying.
Also this month Yan has published his first novel to appear in English before it is published in Chinese, “Pow,” a slightly lighter but equally bestial tale. It, too, is translated by Howard Goldblatt, who has proven over nine books that he can capture the huge range in Yan’s style, from the elegant and elegiac tone employed in the novella, “Change: What Was Communism,” to the high farce of “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh,’’ and now, “Pow!”
The hero of “Pow!” is Luo Xiaotong, who was renowned as the world’s most gluttonous boy. Over the course of the novel, as we learn of how Luo loved meat so much that it sang to him and how his frugal mother’s decision to deprive him of it made him crazed with longing, Yan creates a compelling, if grotesque bestiary of appetites and their consequences.
Alongside Lou’s tale, “Pow” chronicles the changes in a town that has come under the spell of capitalism. Farmers abandon their fields and become butchers, and meat is artificially inflated with injections of water and kept fresh with chemicals normally used to preserve the dead. In the end, townspeople literally become sick from greed.
In the Swedish Academy’s citation to Mo Yan it praised the “hallucinatory realism” of his novels. “Pow!” will not disappoint readers who are in search of a definition of what that means. After one binge, a character complains that “[a]ll that pork lay heavily in my stomach, churning and grinding like a litter of soon-to-be-born piglets.”
Later, in one of the book’s many tales within tales, Big Belly Wu, who has become ill during a fritter-eating contest, has to be taken to the hospital. His stomach is opened up and “half-eaten fritters labouriously removed from his stomach.”
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work Yan has claimed as an inspiration, sometimes the images in “Pow!’’ overflow, and the very point of his writing is that abundance. Unlike the magical realists, however, there is a lucid clarity to Yan’s best writing. In this country he is akin to William T. Vollmann, whose books are long and dense with harrowing and acute images.
When such images pile up across the banquet of a black comedy like this, they create a dis-ease, a feeling of implication. This is not a purely Falstaffian world, after all. Tasty and delectable descriptions of food sit right on top revolting depictions. Yan’s characters in “Pow!’’ are the children of people who were starved. This is a country that metaphorically eats itself, and now, facing capitalism’s promise, may fatten itself by consuming the poisoned meat of its past. “Pow!” and“ Sandalwood Death” are powerful and necessary refusals to digest that meal.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’