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Mo Yan: 酒国 (The Republic of Wine)

The use (and abuse) of alcohol is a subject Mo Yan has dealt with more than once but it is the key theme of this novel, a somewhat chaotic novel. Mo Yan tells it in two alternating parts.

The first part tells of an investigation carried out by crack investigator Ding Gou’er of the Higher Procuratorate though, by the time we learn what he does, he has already laid claim to three other (false) professions). He has been given instructions to investigate allegations that officials in Liquorland have been eating young boys. It is not clear whether Liquorland and the town of Liquorville are actual place names (in Mo Yan’s fictional world) or merely nicknames. We do know that, among other things, they make a lot of alcoholic drinks there and also consume a lot.

Ding Gou’er manages to get a ride to the coal mine where the illegal activity is said to take place. His driver is a woman and before long he is sexually assaulting her, though she seems to be as eager to be assaulted as he is to assault. Indeed, we can say that the majority of the characters of this book are serious alcoholics and serious philanderers. Both Ding Gou’er and the lorry driver are, of course, married.

When he arrives at the coal mine, he finds the gate closed and a long queue of lorries waiting to gain access. He shows his determination – possibly for the last time in this book, as it may well be the last time he is more or less sober – by finding the gatekeeper and shooting him. Fortunately, though the gatekeeper falls down in mortal agony, the gun is only a child’s cap gun and no-one is hurt. Again, this is probably the last time he uses this gun instead of a real gun.

It seems to be the custom at this mine, on meeting someone, to down several drinks. Ding Gou’er meets a lot of people, including the mine director and the all-powerful Diamond Jin who, we later learn, is married to the lorry driver Ding Gou’er had been kissing. By the time Diamond Jin arrives at the welcoming banquet, Ding Gou’er is seriously drunk and has already thrown up. As a result, he is only partially able to take in the pièce de résistance at the banquet, a huge plate on which there appears to be a cooked young boy. He shoots him, this time with a real gun. It appears that it is not a real young boy but various ingredients skilfully designed to look like a young boy. In his drunken state, Ding Gou’er is not convinced. Despite being given sobering-up soup, Ding Gou’er soon passes out and wakes up half naked, with most of his things having been stolen.

Meanwhile, interspersed with this story, we have been following another thread. A Doctor of Liquor Studies, Li Yidou, has written to the famous author Mo Yan, praising him and his work but also submitting a short story which he would like Mo Yan to get published. One of the reasons he has written to Mo Yan is Mo Yan’s apparent love of alcoholic drinks. He quotes Mo Yan: liquor is literature and people who are strangers to liquor are incapable of talking about literature. His first story is about Diamond Jin giving a speech, extolling alcohol.

During the course of the book Li Yidou will regularly write to Mo Yan, always enclosing a short story which he will ask Mo Yan’s assistance in getting published, always extolling Liquorland and inviting Mo Yan to visit it and always saying, despite his work in the alcoholic drink business, which he adores, he really wants to be a writer. Most of the stories seem to be based on his own life and what he imagines is going on in Liquorland. The first two deal with the practice of rearing and cooking young boys – he is convinced it really does happen. However, his later ones are on other subjects. These include Yu Yichi, a dwarf who runs a successful tavern-cum-brothel and who claims to have had sex with most of the attractive women in town and who wants first Li Yidou and then Mo Yan to write his biography. He also writes about his mother-in-law, who now seems to be going insane but about whom he seems to be far more sexually obsessed than he is with her daughter, his wife. He is also organising an Ape Liquor Festival, to which Mo Yan is invited.

Mo Yan does reply to all of them and they engage in discussions on alcohol and literature. Mo Yan is not terribly impressed with Li Yidou’s stories: But if forced to say something, I guess I’d more or less repeat what I’ve said before: that it lacks a consistency of style, that it’s too capricious, that the characters aren’t well developed, and that sort of thing. However, he does try to get them published (without success).

As this correspondence develops, it very soon becomes clear that the two elements are going to merge, if not collide and that is, indeed, what happens. We have still been following Ding Gou’er and his investigation but it is not going terribly well for him, though he does get together with the female lorry driver but even that works out badly.

Alcohol and sex are key to this book but so is food, as we learn of various exotic foods such as camel’s hooves, bear’s paw, monkey brains and swallows’ nests. As a satire on Chinese excesses, this novel is fascinating but as a story it soon becomes totally chaotic, as though the author, both the actual Mo Yan and the fictitious Mo Yan and Li Yidou had been drinking, which may well be the case.

Publishing history

First published in 1992 by Hong fan shu dian, Taipei
First published in English in 2000 by Hamish Hamilton/Arcade
Translated by Howard Goldblatt