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Book Review

Chinese Detective Tale With Surreal, Postmodern Twists

THE REPUBLIC OF WINE, by Mo Yan, Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

Arcade, $26.95, 368 pages


This new novel by the author of "Red Sorghum" starts out as a detective story. Ding Gou'er, a special investigator from China's central government, is dispatched to a coal-mining area in the province of Liquorland to check the veracity of a horrifying rumor: Poor peasants have been raising baby boys to be eaten by the country's post-Mao elite.

But the detective story is a rational genre, and from the first page Mo Yan plunges both the intrepid Ding and the reader into surreal implausibilities, Swiftian satire and postmodern dislocations of form. Not to mention tales of the demonic lifted from the folk literature of Mo's native Shandong Province, the model for Liquorland.

The "wine" of the title, translator Howard Goldblatt points out, is "actually 120-proof and stronger liquor made of sorghum or other grains." The stuff packs a fiendish wallop, as Deng discovers when he tries to grill officials at the Mount Luo Coal Mine about the baby-eating allegations and instead is lured into banquets and drinking contests that permanently loosen his hold on reality.

Ding blunders through a field of logs, a forest of sunflowers, an underground banquet hall where he confronts Diamond Jin, a legendary drinker and, perhaps, the leader of the cannibals. He hitches a ride with a female trucker who is tigerish and seductive by turns; she is Jin's wife, bent on enticing him into bed, where compromising photos can be taken and the investigation derailed. Ding knows he should keep away from her, but he falls in love.

Meanwhile, a fictional version of Mo Yan himself is receiving a young Liquorlander, Li Yidou, who is completing his doctorate in Liquor Studies at the province's Brewers' College. Li wants to be a writer. He sends his mentor, Mo, nine increasingly wild and graphic short stories about the cannibalism racket, along with poetic and historical treatises on booze. Mo welcomes the latter because he has long planned to write "a novel about liquor"--this novel, it turns out.

Li's stories, however, first throw the novel off course, then displace the Ding story as the primary narrative. "I'd planned for Ding Gou'er to be a special agent with almost supernatural abilities, a man of brilliance and extraordinary talent," Mo complains toward the end. "What he wound being was a good-for-nothing drunk."

This has political implications, no doubt--no system has made more of a fetish of rationality than communism; Ding, when he isn't hallucinating or dreaming or succumbing to the pulls of food, drink or sex, keeps trying to remind himself that he's a "good materialist." But the target of Mo's satire seems stronger than any particular regime. Human appetite subverts all systems, all moralities. This is both wonderful and terrible, as Mo suggests by the veering of his prose from stylized lyricism to the scatological and disgusting.

China boasts one of the world's great cuisines, but it's the product of an often unhealthy obsession about food, Mo contends. To titillate jaded human palates, swallows' nests are scraped from caves for soup, killing many climbers and eventually exterminating the birds. Donkeys are slaughtered in cruel ways so that their hooves and genitalia can be eaten. Is it such a stretch, Mo asks, to imagine buyers and sellers agreeing that babies raised for the table needn't be considered actual children?

Li's stories describe the marketing and cooking of such a baby, and investigator Ding eats one--maybe. Diamond Jin claims it's a cunningly prepared baby-replica made of lotus root, but considering how drunk Ding is at the time, how can he tell for sure? All he knows is that it tastes good.

Which is more or less our situation as we read "The Republic of Wine." We won't get all the jokes, catch all the allusions, even follow all the twists of the plot, but the sheer energy of the storytelling will carry us to the end, when Mo, despairing of Ding's progress, journeys to Liquorland himself to see whether the dwarfs, demons and perverse lovers of Li's stories are real or just another fiction.

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