I may be entirely unqualified to comment on this book given my relative ignorance of modern Chinese culture. Let’s see.
The Republic of Wine is a book by popular – in that he has books translated into English – Chinese author Mo Yan, about drinking and eating babies. Special Investigator Ding Gou’er is commissioned some Communist Party authorities to look into disturbing reports of baby-eating in Liquorland, a probably fictional province of China where everyone fucking loves alcohol. The book enjoys telling you this, often several times per page. Often it contains long, deliberately pretentious passages about proper methods of distillation, serving, or whatever nonsense Mo Yan feels like passing off as ironic alcoholic faux-wisdom.
Also, it won a Nobel Prize for Literature.
That’s the odd part. Inspector Ding Gou’er’s story is actually pretty interesting. Shortly after he arrives in Liquorland, he meets the various government officials who are, obviously, complicit in the whole baby-eating deal. There’s an official named Diamond Jin whose affability, bottomless tolerance for alcohol, and confidence that gourmet children are a justifiable luxury makes him a fascinating villain. His wife, only ever described as “the lady trucker” serves as a twisted femme fatale and ally to Ding Gou’er, and their relationship is complicated and fraught with juicy romantic tension that manifests itself in interesting ways.
Interspersed between Ding Gou’er’s increasingly hallucinatory quest are letters from an aspiring Liquorland writer to a fictionalised Mo Yan, containing short stories that flesh out the setting. The first of these, “Meat Boy”, is chilling in just the right ways, being a very simple story of a peasant selling his infant to the Liquorland authorities and receiving far more money than he expected. Mo Yan goes into far more detail than is comfortable in describing how the (very much alive infant) is prepared for selling so as to minimise imperfections and ensure maximum gourmet value. The next two are character explorations of a scaled “demon child” whose only crime seems to be freeing human livestock from the slaughter and the dwarf proprietor of a restaurant specialising in donkey who reads like Tyrion Lannister without any moral compass.
The Republic of Wine continues like this for about a third of the novel and its setup is wonderfully promising. The metafictional narrative serves the greater story of Ding Gou’er and his gradual transformation into a Don Quixote figure, trapped in an unfamiliar land with a quest that makes sense only to him. The relative abundance characters seem ambitious, but the commonality of the setting suggests a trippy, Haruki Murakami-esque finale that almost answers the readers’ questions.
Instead, Mo Yan goes full Joyce.
Everyone knows you don’t go full Joyce.
Ding Gou’er ceases to be Don Quixote and starts being a complete fucking idiot. He pisses himself every time something scary happens. He shoots his nice ladyfriend in the head because she’d previously slept with Yu Yichi, because what could be more disgusting than sleeping with a dwarf, right? I’m still not sure if Mo Yan is condemning that attitude or wholeheartedly endorsing it, based on the convoluted reasoning and abrupt nature of the murder. The scaly demon kid disappears entirely despite being hinted as very important in the first third, only obliquely referenced once for the rest of the novel. Ding Gou’er rapidly degenerates into a totally unsympathetic character, not so much for any one reason (though the murder helps) but because he becomes so laughably incompetent in a world that runs on not-logic that it’s impossible to care what happens to him. Spoiler alert: he drowns unceremoniously in a puddle of shit after fetishizing his handgun for a couple hundred pages.
Meanwhile, correspondence between Mo Yan’s avatar and the Liquorland author, Li Yidou, quickly finds its way up its own ass and remains there for the rest of the novel. It also begins to bloat dangerously, crowding out the rest of the narrative with trivialities like Yidou’s frustration with Citizen’s Literature magazine, a plot point that, like all the rest, never gets resolved.
His short stories also stop having discernible plots. For the second half of the novel they seem to either be about how wonderful alcohol is, fictionalised Li Yidou’s relationship with his mother-in-law (incestuous, obviously), and increasingly obscure recipes for Chinese dishes. These are still technically set in Liquorland, but have nothing to do with the novel’s ostensible main narrative.
Later on Mo Yan’s author avatar starts taking an active role in the story, and while he doesn’t quite make the fanfiction author mistake of having an avatar that fixes everything forever, he still can’t induce the reader to care about what happens fifty pages after Ding Gou’er’s demise at the hands of sewage. Furthermore, the letters seem to suggest that the world of Ding Gou’er, the world of Li Yidou’s short stories, and the world that Yidou and Yan inhabit are three totally distinct universes. Yan actually gets the reader to retroactively care less about his story because he reveals that nothing that happens in the plot is really relevant to anything else.
The novel ends abruptly when fictional Mo Yan goes to a Liquorland dinner and promptly dies of alcohol poisoning, like a normal fucking person would. He spends the next few pages previous to his death monologuing in stream of consciousness, at one point saying “Damn some will say I’m obviously imitating the style of Ulysses in this section Who cares I’m drunk.” Acknowledging your influences doesn’t make them any less obvious or obnoxious, but it apparently gets you a Nobel Prize if you do it incomprehensibly enough.
Philip Gambone calls The Republic of Wine a “cri de coeur for the lost soul of his country”, and I am deeply confused about that. Is he suggesting there’s social commentary to be gleaned from this mess? On what? Is China knee-deep in alcoholism to the point where the only way one can comment is by coming up with a crazed bullshit plot involving immaculately prepared gourmet babies that is abandoned halfway through? Mo Yan played a beautiful opening game, then he got drunk, swept all the pieces off the board, and danced on top of the table until someone pinned a medal to his chest so he’d stop.