The Chinese author and Nobel Prize winner (in literature, 2012), Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, in my opinion, is a literary and linguistic feast. One might argue that the word feast contradicts the novel’s theme—a most gruesome form of capital punishment which can hardly arouse any appetite for a normal reader. Well, maybe it does take such an extraordinary form to convey the thoughts so heavy and so relevant.
The main characters, with names so generic that they clearly symbolize any Chinese citizens in ancient and modern settings, act roles in an intense dramatic opera (literally!) that fuses love, loyalty, honor, and subtly but most importantly, conscience. At the transition of the 19th and 20th centuries, the feudal China is in her chair days, while strong and ambitious new bloods from the West reach into this ancient realm. As the Germans start to build a railway across the northeastern province of Shandong, the locals interpret it as a violation to their sacred inheritance, the land, and respond with organized sabotages and attacks, which invite military retaliations that inevitably cause the death of a German soldier. Sun Bing, the perpetrator, is captured and subjected to the titled punishment. Various rescue attempts add to the dramatic elements of the story though all end up futile. And Sun Bing the former folk opera (Mao Qiang, or Cat-Tune) singer turns the execution field into a theater where his martyrdom is poetically extolled. The story climaxes as the punishment is cut short by Qian Ding, the local magistrate, as a frail sign of protest and compassion, and ends abruptly.
Mo Yan’s literary style, praised as “hallucinatory realism (that) merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”, is on full display in this novel. The sentences carry rhythms so melodic that they remind me of the classical Chinese poetry form of Qu. And similar to the Qu genre, they reflect voices of ordinary souls from their hearts. In this case, the souls are in search of justice and dignity, and such pursuit eventually erupts with a deafening volume. Analogous transformations of character images into animals are used so uniquely that they not only reinforce the intensity of emotions, but also sharply point to the darkest facets of human nature—malice, oblivion, apathy.
The author’s pen name, Mo Yan, means “don’t talk”. With good reasons, it is his way to gain relative freedom to decipher history and humanity’s baffling codes. After all, there must be many alternatives better than silence. In this novel, He is successful in conveying his message through the sandalwood death, the details of which should be left to those who are absolutely interested to explore. Though made-up, it is inspired by the many real ones of the same nature throughout the history of the civilization. The purpose of the punishment is none other than a showcase of terror to intimidate those who bear similar rebellious minds. In a regime where the profession of execution has become a mystified and revered form of art, or, in a more relevant context, where doubting minds are silently estranged and stifled by the social norms, one may say it might have taken effect. However, when the new magistrate in the novel conducts his final act knowing the unthinkable consequences to his career and life, we can still hope that this brief fragment inspires the readers to search for their own conscience. —WZ