The Republic of Wine is a novel Joseph Heller might have written had he been Chinese. As it is, the honor goes to Mo Yan, one of China's most respected writers. Set in the fictional province of Liquorland, this tall tale begins with a rumor of cannibal feasts featuring children as the delectable main course. In response, Chinese officials send special investigator Ding Gou'er to look into the allegations. He arrives by coal truck at the Mount Lao Coal Mine, where he meets the legendary Diamond Jin, Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, a man known for an epic ability to hold his booze. Almost at once, Ding's worst fears seem to be realized when he is invited to a special dinner, given enough alcohol to stun an ox, and then served what appears to be "a golden, incredibly fragrant little boy." Horrified, he attempts to make an arrest and in the ensuing confusion, accidentally puts a bullet in the main course. |
The braised boy was now a headless boy. The unsmashed parts of his skull had tumbled to the edge of the table's second tier, between a platter of sea cucumbers and another of braised shrimp, pieces of head like shattered watermelon rind, or pieces of watermelon rind like shattered head, watermelon juices dripping like blood, or blood dripping like watermelon juices, soiling the tablecloth and soiling the people's eyes. A pair of eyes like purple grapes or purple grapes like a pair of eyes rolled around on the floor, one skittering behind the liquor cabinet, the other rolling up to a red serving girl, who squashed it with her foot.
Despite his hosts' explanation that the boy's arms are made of lotus root, his legs of ham sausage, and his head from a silver melon, Ding remains suspicious--until he is rendered so addled by wine that he ends up eating half an arm all on his own. As Ding continues his investigation, Mo Yan sends up the Chinese preoccupation with food, drink, and sex even as he daringly explores the nature of his country's political structure.
A lesser novelist might be satisfied with just this one narrative thread; Mo Yan, however, has bigger ambitions. In between chapters chronicling Ding Gou'er's adventures in Liquorland, the author has inserted letters and short stories purportedly sent to him by one Li Yidou, a doctoral candidate in Liquor Studies at the Brewer's College in Liquorland, and an aspiring author in his own right. The correspondence between fictional character and author allows Mo Yan to wax satirical on the subject of art, politics, and the troubling point where the two intersect in a Socialist society: "One of the tenets of the communism envisioned by Marx," the hopeful Yidou writes, "was the integration of art with the working people and of the working people with art. So when communism has been realized, everyone will be a novelist." In such a society everyone might write novels, perhaps; but as The Republic of Wine masterfully demonstrates, only a first-rate artist like Mo Yan could pull off such a subversive and darkly comic metafiction so seamlessly.
Source: Alix Wilber, Amazon.com.