This powerful novel by Mo Yan—one of contemporary China’s most famous and prolific writers—is both a stirring love story and an unsparing critique of political corruption during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial epoch.
Sandalwood Death is set during the Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901)—an anti-imperialist struggle waged by North China’s farmers and craftsmen in opposition to Western influence. Against a broad historical canvas, the novel centers on the interplay between its female protagonist, Sun Meiniang, and the three paternal figures in her life. One of these men is her biological father, Sun Bing, an opera virtuoso and a leader of the Boxer Rebellion. As the bitter events surrounding the revolt unfold, we watch Sun Bing march toward his cruel fate, the gruesome “sandalwood punishment,” whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.
Filled with the sensual imagery and lacerating expressions for which Mo Yan is so celebrated, Sandalwood Death brilliantly exhibits a range of artistic styles, from stylized arias and poetry to the antiquated idiom of late Imperial China to contemporary prose. Its starkly beautiful language is here masterfully rendered into English by renowned translator Howard Goldblatt.
Mo Yan’s recreation of the Boxer Rebellion opens, as it will close, with first-person narratives by voluptuous Meiniang and the four men in her life: her father, an opera singer leading the rebellion against the German railroad workers; her husband, a dull, muscular butcher of dogs and pigs; her father-in-law, the Imperial executioner assigned to punish the rebel leader; and her rich lover, the Magistrate who betrays her father to the foreign invaders where the sandalwood death will be his punishment. The plot has all the ingredients of an opera tragedy, and the monologues that form the opening and closing chapters each begin with lyrics from a Chinese folk opera based on the same story called Sandalwood Death. Three public executions, at the novel’s beginning, middle, and end, are set pieces of ceremonial horror. Zhao Jia, the Imperial executioner, is such a cold-blooded, cunning, ruthless fellow that only the novel’s first sentence, revealing that the heroine will stab him to death in seven days, gives the reader the courage to read on as he performs hideously cruel public executions as well as shames, abuses and torments the more likeable pawns in this dark, suspenseful love story. Fortunately, the heroine’s not-so-bright husband provides comic relief, blundering along good-naturedly, blind to the obvious, falling out of bed when she screams in her sleep with desire for another man. Mo Yan is a mesmerizing storyteller and a daring one, constantly showing the other side of characters you thought you knew. He gives away plot turns before they happen. He introduces a character in flashback after showing him publically executed by the hideous slicing death of 500 cuts. Though his irrepressible trademark humor has little opportunity to shine here, the scenes are just as knockdown powerful, and his sense of theatricality knows how to prolong suspense and deliver wallops of surprise as he brings to life a collapsing empire over a hundred years ago, where long beards are sexually attractive, dogs are herded and butchered as food, and public executions are long, horrific torture sessions of satanic ingenuity. Not until sixty pages from the end of this huge novel does Mo Yan give the reader a first glimpse of the staggering finale he has painstakingly prepared – detail after detail quietly building over hundreds of pages in a mounting tsunami of information come together in a final catastrophe set piece including all the main characters and resolving all the novel’s themes in a once-in-a-lifetime ending no reader will ever, ever forget. – Nick DiMartino