The Republic of Wine

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Article by Malcolm Aquino

Hailing from Shandong Province, Mo Yan is one of China’s foremost modern authors. Winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing, he is the first Chinese writer to win the award. Mo Yan has written 11 novels. I’ll be taking a look at The Republic of Wine, published in 1993 in China and 2014 for the English translation.

The Republic of Wine begins with Police Inspector Ding Guo’er being sent off to a fictional town called Liquorland to investigate a report that certain government cadres were dining on an exotic food of the human kind, specifically infants. This is met with shock disgust and Ding Guo’er sets off to Liquorland, ready to take down the barbaric, corrupt officials. However, things prove to be much more difficult and bizarre than Ding Guo’er could have ever imagined. Ding Guo’er’s story is broken up by a correspondence between Mo Yan and a Liquorland native named Li Yiduo, a phD in “Liquor Studies.” Li Yiduo goes against his family’s wishes and decides he wants to pursue writing, a career path Mo Yan also disapproves of. The letters give the reader a glimpse into the truly weird and fantastic world of Liquorland, and towards the last act of the book, Yiduo’s letters and the stories written in them begin to intersect with Ding Guo’er’s story.

Liquorland is a place steeped in tradition, with liquor being the fulcrum of everything, as Li Yiduo’s degree shows. It is a utopia, where the food never runs out, the cups are never dry, and everyone is as happy as can be. As with all utopias, there is a very dark side of it, one that Ding Guo’er and Li Yiduo reveal as the novel pushes forward. The denizens of Liquorland are colorful cast that includes the trucker lady (her only name), a beautiful woman who is as crass and vulgar as they come, Diamond Jin, the main antagonist of the novel, a man with a limitless appetite for liquor and food, and Yu Yichi, a dwarf innkeeper whose sexual and party escapades would make Tyrion Lannister hang his head in shame, to name a few.

Mo Yan uses these larger than life setting and characters to critique some of the less commendable practices by the rich and powerful of China, specifically the excess of dining and drinking culture, as well as the habits of buying exotic, and usually illegal, animal products for supposed medicinal purposes. Veteran expats will get a kick out of the very relatable struggle of Ding Guo’er and his fight against banquet after banquet of absurd amounts and kinds of food. Some of the scenes are quite graphic, but none of it is unnecessary. Mo Yan holds back nothing as he goes after elites and the people who have to suffer to feed their unending appetites. The portrait he paints is not a positive one, but he describes it with a shrug of the shoulders and sarcasm.

The writing style of the novel may turn off some readers who enjoy a more traditional narrative structure in their novels. The novel is full of postmodernist techniques such as breaking the fourth wall almost constantly, fragmented narrative, and bizarre non-sequitur. Mo Yan is able to blend the bizarre world of postmodern western literature with the more traditional and folk tale structure of Chinese literature that creates an acid trip of a book that kept me strapped in for the whole ride. Mo Yan has a gift for making readers laugh their asses off when they should be upset and crying. If you are a fan of Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka, or Kurt Vonnegut novels, this one is right up your alley. If not, I’d say give it a try because the humor was enough to get me through some of the tougher parts of the book. The ending will have some tossing the book in anger, some laughing until tears come out, or some scratching their heads thinking “What did I just read?” However, it is, to me at least, a suitable ending and understandable having read all of the way through.

The translated copy I read was translated by Howard Goldsblatt. He is described as the “foremost translator of Chinese literature in the West” on the back of the book. Though I cannot vouch for this statement, it seems to me that the translated text doesn’t miss a beat. All of the humor is there, none of the emotion is lost, so anyone who is concerned about a bad translation can breathe easy.

All in all, I would highly recommend The Republic of Wine to any reader. It has humor, mystery, social commentary, and fantasy all wrapped up in a sheet of bizarre and ghastly story. You can pick up a copy at Zhong Lou Bookstore or Qujiang Bookstore.

Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.