Sandalwood Death

Mo Yan, trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt . Univ. of Oklahoma, $24.95 (424p) ISBN 978-0-8061-4339-2
In an Author's Note, the Nobel Prize winner observes that he "had trouble" answering friends who asked what this historical novel was about, before concluding that it was "all about sound." Mo attempts to preempt the criticism he anticipates by stating that the book "will likely not be a favorite of readers of Western literature, especially in highbrow circles," because of his use of "rhymes and dramatic narration, all in the service of a smooth, easy to understand, overblown, resplendent narrative." But there are other barriers to enjoyment than style. Flashbacks present the life of Sun Bing, a leader of the Boxer Rebellion who "led the fight between local residents and the German devils." The governor of Shandong province sentences him to death, seeking to "unnerve unruly subjects and preserve discipline and the rule of law." Sun Bing is to suffer the Sandalwood Death, an excruciatingly prolonged method of execution—the sadism of which will be hard for many readers to stomach. The details of human suffering end up co-opting the story, overshadowing larger, more nuanced points the author is trying to make. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 12/17/2012
Release date: 11/01/2012
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