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Mo Yan: 四十一炮 (Pow!)

If you have read any of Mo Yan’s other novels, the basic outline of this novel will be not too unfamiliar. Our narrator is Luo Xiaotong. When he was five years old, his father, Luo Tong, ran off with his slut (the term used by Luo Xiaotong’s mother, Yang Yuzhen, to describe the woman Luo Xiaotong knows as Aunty Wild Mule). It is not the first time that this has happened. This time, his mother did not take it lying down. She was determined to succeed and show her unfaithful ex what he was missing. She first tried the meat trade, a major business in the town but it really was no business for a woman, so she took up the idea of collecting and reselling rubbish.

Yang Yuzhen soon became very successful at it and made a fair bit of money, so much so that she was able to build a new house for them. However, from Luo Xiaotong’s perspective, this is not satisfactory. There is one thing he had hoped that she would buy with her new-found wealth, and that was meat. He craved meat. Meat was my life, my love; the meat that went into my stomach, and only that meat, was mine. Meat in my stomach made me carefree and happy. But, to his horror, after building the new house, she became even more of a skinflint and their diet got worse and, in particular, remained meatless.

Yang Yuzhen’s plan was now to save up and buy a truck, like the one Lao Lan had. Lao Lan was the village headman. He and Luo Tong did not get on. Indeed, they had fought, with injuries on both sides. In Luo Xiaotong’s eyes, his father was far cleverer than Lao Lan but lacked ambition. Luo Tong’s philosophy of life was: eat well today and don’t worry about tomorrow. Take it easy and enjoy life. Indeed according to his son If getting rich had been on his agenda he’d have had no trouble becoming the wealthiest man in the village.

It was Luo Tong who spotted that Luo Lan injected formaldehyde into the meat he sold. Others injected water. The town had had a conventional mixed crop agriculture but had switched entirely to cattle, not least because it was more profitable. The fields lay fallow and an illegal meat trade grew.

Luo Xiaotong’s mother and Luo Lan had become close since the departure of her husband. Indeed, he sold her a tractor he was going to get rid of, at a very low price and even taught her how to drive it. He also seems to visit more frequently.

However, one day, they get another visitor – Luo Tong. The prodigal father returns and he is not alone, but accompanied by by a young girl, Jiaojiao. Not surprisingly, his wife is not entirely welcoming. In fact, she goes into a fit, screaming and shouting. Luo Tong is very contrite and tells his wife that Aunty Wild Mule has died and he is left with their daughter. Yang Yuzhen has no intention of taking him back, despite the pleas of her son but to no avail. Luo Tong knows where he is not wanted and he and Jiaojiao set off for the station. Luo Xiaotong follows and persuades his mother to accept his father and half-sister, which she finally, albeit reluctantly, does.

Luo Lan has now decided to be friends with the family and arranges for them to have electricity and sends them food parcels. When he builds a meat processing plant, he makes Luo Tong plant manager. Meanwhile, Luo Xiaotong and Jiaojiao have been sent to school. They do not like it. Luo Xiaotong sees no point in it and, indeed, frequently argues with the teacher.

Luo Xiaotong, there are eight pears and four children. How do you divide them up? asks the teacher.

Divide them up? You fight over them! This is an age of “primitive accumulation”. The bold stuff their bellies, the timid starve to death and the biggest fist wins the fight! is his response.

Though, by now, he is only twelve, he urges Luo Lan to give him a job at the plant and his half-sister follows suit. Reluctantly, Luo Lan does so, very much against the better judgement of Luo Tong, and it is Luo Xiaotong who, for example, comes up with creative ideas of how to increase the weight of the cattle without illegally injecting them with water or formaldehyde.

But, in good Mo Yan fashion, things go wrong, desperately wrong. Blood and carnage, animal and human, are everywhere and no-one lives happily ever after.

The story is written by Luo Xiaotong some ten years later. He is in a monastery, telling the tale to a wise monk, who, we later learn, was a key character earlier in the story. He shows us what happened to him afterwards but, as Mo Yan himself say in an afterword During the course of writing this novel, Luo Xiaotong was me. He no longer is. Another fine tale from Mo Yan.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Hong fan shu dian
First published in English 2012 by Seagull
Translated by Howard Goldblatt