The Republic of Wine
by Mo Yan
Not only does he write about the underworld,
he must also have a considerable number of
fans there. Mo Yan's admirers boast that he is
one of the most pirated and frequently banned
authors in China.  Even his name—which literally
translates
as "don’t speak"
—adds to the sense of
defiance and transgression
in his ouevure. Mo Yan,
born under the name
Guo Moye in Gaomi in
Shandong province in
1955, speaks out force-
fully in his many books,
mixing in social com-
mentary with the magical
realism and fanciful story lines. The influence of

Gabriel García Márquez
can be seen in his work,
but Mo Yan has also expressed his admiration for
Tolstoy, Faulkner and Turgenev. His novel
Red
Sorghum
served as the basis for an award-winning
1987 film of the same name, and was the picked

as the favorite novel by Chinese readers in a
1996 survey. "There are certain restrictions on
writing in every country," Mo Yan has

commented, but he has made a career out of
pushing the envelope, although sometimes

dressing up his critiques in symbolic or quasi-
allegorical. form  "One of the biggest problems

in literature is the lack of subtlety," Mo Yan has
explained. “A writer should bury his thoughts

deep and convey them through the characters
in his novel."
ROGUES GALLERY:
MO YAN
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In my travels through China, Hong Kong,
Taiwain, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia and other
parts of Asia, I have experienced first hand the
unusual culinary arts and competitive drinking
games of these cultures. One of my frequent
traveling partners delighted
in unusual fare—and
eventually paid the price
for it, suffering untold ago-
nies due to the side effects
of dining on a parasitic-
ridden scorpion. But before
that toxic event, which
almost put him permanently
out of commission, he
ensured that I was treated
to deer tendon, crispy eel,
snake, and a host of other
delicacies that he insisted,
with great vehemence, that
I enjoy to the fullest.  As for the drinking, I count
myself lucky to have survived the potent maotai
and the oft-repeated toast
gan bei—the equivalent
of "bottoms up"—instructed, as I was, that not to
finish every drop would be considered an insult.

Alas, if I did empty the cup, it would quickly be
refilled and another toast would ensue. Dinnertime,
in these settings, was often a game of survival and
subterfuge.  

Now an author has done justice to this deadly

aspect of Chinese food and drink.  Mo Yan—who
had previously employed liquor as an over-arching
metaphor in his book
Red Sorghum, which served
as the basis for an 1987 Oscar-nominated film—
returns to the subject in
The Republic of Wine.  This
absurdist, noir-camp mystery is set in Liquorland,
a mythical province where cuisine and spirits take

on a sinister aspect.  

Ding Gou'er, a celebrated investigator, has been
sent to Liquorland by the Higher Procuratorate to

look into allegations of cannibalism.  Rumors
have reached Beijing authorities that some

unhinged gastronomists in that region have taken
to dining on young boys.  "We all hope there isn’t
a word of truth in this accusation," Ding Gou'er's

boss tells him. "Use any means necessary to carry
out your mission, so long as it’s legal."   

Our investigator takes these words to heart,

perhaps too much so, and shows little restraint
or discretion in his pursuit of the
supposed
malefactors.  But seldom has any detective been

more haplessly befuddled while on the job.  
Wine and a woman prove to be Di
ng Gou'er's
undoing, and soon he is caught in a downward

spiral from which he cannot extricate himself.  
He is forced to participate in a series of com-
petitive drinking confrontations, where he fares

badly, and even ends up unwittingly dining on
the very dish he has been sent to eradicate.  

The investigation never gets back on track, but
our author Mo Yan hardly seems to care. Instead

he immerses the reader in the crude exoticism of
Liquorland and its leading inhabitants, and the novel
that started out as a detective tale turns into
a nightmarishly Rabelaisian account in which the

line between realism and fantasy blurs….and
eventually disappears completely.  Along the
way we meet a bizarre cast of characters, seem-
ingly chosen for their outrageousness:  Diamond

Jin, a local party official, who possesses an
"oceanic capacity for liquor," and never gets
intoxicated no matter how much he imbibes;  
Yu Yichi, a dwarf and restaurateur, who aims to

seduce every beautiful woman in Liquorland, and
is well on his way to meeting that goal;  a
dangerous "Lady Trucker" who flirts one
moment and attacks the next;  a scaly demon boy

who leads a revolt of the children destined for
cooking and consumption;  a professor of spirits
who heads into the hinterlands, hoping to learn
how make superior wine from white apes.  

The narrative structure is highly unconventional.  
Chapters alternate with letters between Mo Yan
and a fan of his, named Li Yidou, who is an
aspiring writer and doctoral student in liquor

studies residing in Liquorland.  Every letter from
Li Yidou is accompanied by a short story, each of
which deals with some aspect of Liquorland and
its dark side.  Eventually these short stories

converge with the account of Ding Gou'er and
his ill-fated criminal investigation. Mo Yan
becomes an increasingly important character in
his own novel, traveling to Liquorland to see
things first hand.  

Mo Yan the author is rather harsh on Mo Yan

the character, describing him as a "puffy, balding,
beady-eyed, twisted-mouthed, middle-aged
writer."  The author soon falls prey to the same

competitive drinking that laid low his prize
investigator Ding Gou'er.  In the final pages,

the novel turns into a crazed stream-of-
consciousness free-for-all, with punctuation and
conventional syntax abandoned—perhaps, as Mo

Yan mentions, in imitation of Joyce’s Ulysses,
but maybe just as the ultimate literary evocation
of intoxication.  

The symbols are there to decipher, beneath the
outrageous plot lines.  The image of respected
officials feasting on citizens is both disturbing,
and all too easy to interpret—so it comes as no
surprise to learn that
The Republic of Wine,
written in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square
protests, was banned in the People's Republic
after its 1992 publication in Taiwan.  Here too
the figure of the "failed detective," a recurring

meme of the postmodern mystery, takes on larger
overtones, incorporated into this story of a whole
community given over to drunkenness and self-
indulgence.  Here failure, contrary to that
famous bit of movie dialogue, may well be the
only option.

Even so, those seeking coherence over exuberance

may find themselves put off by the drunken
stumblings of The Republic of Wine.   Many things
get started over the course of this book—a love

affair, a crime investigation, a literary career, etc.
—but few of them reach fruition. Whenever Mo

Yan seems to be settling into his story, he is certain
to surprise you a few pages later by moving on to
something different.  But he invariably tries to
compensate for the discombobulated story line
with
an excess of vivacity, color and sheer
extravagance.  You might have a hangover after

closing the final page, yet perhaps that's what you
should ex
pect from a book built around feasting,
drinking and revelry?  Then again, maybe our

author has turned his metaphors upside down,
and instead of writing a book in which food and

drink are mere symbols in the story, he has
cooked up a story that must be consumed as if it

were food and drink…no matter how hard this
tall tale might be to swallow.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
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Further Clues:

Mo Yan: A Powerful Spokesman

Lunch with China's Mo Yan

Q&A with Mo Yan

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize Lecture
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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
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Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

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Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Foucault's Pendulum
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The Serialist

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The Curious Incident of
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Generation Loss

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Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

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The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

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Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

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Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
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Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

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The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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