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Sunday, July 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ambitious `Republic of Wine' is intoxicating

Special to The Seattle Times

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"The Republic of Wine"

by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt

Arcade, $26.95

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When English-language critics call a novel "subversive" it's generally meant as a compliment. Tell that to Mo Yan.

"The Republic of Wine," his eviscerating 1992 satire of post-Mao China, had to be published in Taiwan originally. It was too hot for mainland China.

Now, in an astonishing feat of translation by Howard Goldblatt, we Westerners get to experience what all the fuss was about.

More ambitious in scope than Yan's better-known work "Red Sorghum," "The Republic of Wine" combines three story lines, each focusing in one way or another on alcohol and a place called Liquorland.

The first plot, penned by a famous Chinese author named Mo Yan, is a mock hard-boiled-crime novel.

Special Investigator Ding Gou'er of the Higher Procuratorate is investigating mysterious culinary goings-on at the Mount Luo Coal Mine.

Wined and dined by the local officials, Gou'er becomes so intoxicated he cannot tell reality from fiction - a mental state he never fully shakes during his stay in Liquorland.

Alternating with Gou'er's surreal adventures is a lively literary correspondence between Mo Yan and Li Yidou (One Pint Li). Li is a Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies at the Brewer's College in Liquorland.

An admirer of Mo Yan and an aspiring writer himself, Li sends Yan stories, hoping Yan will be able to get them published. These stories, each one more bizarre and politically scandalous than the last, form the third sequence of the novel.

Reviewers love to pin down talent by making writers into some amalgam of other authors. But the truth is Mo Yan writes like no one on the planet. His gifts are prodigious. He has what Tolstoy has - 360-degree vision, and, like the Russian master, his descriptions of the natural world have the shimmering imagery of film:

"The moon was still out, turning the blacktop gray. Roadside poplars, their branches bare, looked like gaunt standing men, the tips pale and ghostly. He shivered. The lantern cast a warm, yellow glow, its flickering shadow looming large on the surface of the road. He sniffled as he looked at the waxen tear running down the wick. A dog alongside someone's wall barked languidly: he looked down at the dog's shadow, sharing the sense of languor as he heard it scurry noisily into a haystack . . ."

This small slice of a paragraph is in no way representative of Yan's style. He has no discernible writer's voice you can begin to pick up in his prose. Yan's fierce comic intelligence invents at will. His "The Republic of Wine" is like a huge, brilliantly colored cancer, a literary cartoon that contracts and expands, words mutating into flowers, into hatchets, into bodily functions and into beautifully grotesque, irresistible food dishes named "Dragon Phoenix Lucky Together" and "Stork Delivering a Son."

There are times when the verbal assault is too much, too repetitive or too obscure. Yan drops lots of puns into the text which the non-Chinese-speaking reader just won't get (not this reviewer, anyway), and the degree of violence in action and language makes you occasionally close the book and go out looking for a life-affirming gardening project.

Yet, like dim sum on a full stomach, you are drawn back for more.

As Yan draws together his narratives, his furious attack on officialdom and the perversities of those in power is transformed into something less didactic and more personal: the artist's search for a metaphor that can both complete and escape the world.

Mo Yan, the character, writes to his new writing disciple, Li Yidou:

"I've written several chapters of my long novel `The Republic of Wine' (tentative title). Originally I thought I'd have no trouble writing about liquor, since I've been drunk a time or two. But once I started, I encountered all sorts of difficulties and complications. The relationship between man and liquor embodies all the contradictions involved in the process of human existence and development. Someone with extraordinary talent could write an impressive work on this topic; unfortunately, with my meager talents, I reveal my shortcomings at every turn. . . ."

Meager. Ha.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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