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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sandalwood Death

Mo Yan

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To purchase Sandalwood Death

Title: Sandalwood Death
Author: Mo Yan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 407 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Sandalwood Death - US
Sandalwood Death - UK
Sandalwood Death - Canada
Sandalwood Death - India
Le supplice du santal - France
Die Sandelholzstrafe - Deutschland
Il supplizio del legno di sandalo - Italia
  • Chinese title: 檀香刑
  • Translated by Howard Goldblatt

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Our Assessment:

A : sensational (in every sense of the word) storytelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 12/1/2013 John Freeman
FAZ . 12/1/2010 Michael Müller
NZZ . 12/10/2009 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/2/2013 Ian Buruma
Publishers Weekly . 17/12/2012 .
SCMP . 20/1/2013 James Kidd
TLS . 1/3/2013 Julia Lovell

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sandalwood Death is a polyphonic novel, told in its first half from several perspectives and in the latter portion by an omniscient narrator. Sun Meiniang’s section is the most vivid and illuminating. (...) The march to his death, like the build-up to Cromwell’s show trials in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, has a malevolent kind of momentum, underscored by the occasional rhymes that nod to the book’s opera origins. But while death in England came with one swift blow in that period, the punishment as described in Sandalwood Death is sadistic and horrifying." - John Freeman, Boston Globe

  • "Mo Yan beschäftigt sich jedoch nicht mit der großen Politik, er malt keine Szenerie des bevorstehenden Untergangs der Qing-Dynastie. Er widmet sich vielmehr dem kulturellen Untergang: Das Kaisertum, der Konfuzianismus, die Katzenoper -- sie alle sind dem Untergang geweiht. (...) Mo Yan ist mit der Sandelholzstrafe ein dreifach dramatisches Werk gelungen: weil es bei Folter um die Verletzung der menschlichen Würde geht, die Verletzung von Mitgliedern der eigenen Familie ausgeführt werden soll und weil Mo Yan sich dem Abschnitt der chinesischen Geschichte widmet, der für die Chinesen bis heute für die Hilflosigkeit ihrer Heimat gegenüber den westlichen Invasoren steht." - Michael Müller, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Der Mittelteil bleibt einem auktorialen Erzähler überlassen, der es jedoch vermeidet, Partei zu ergreifen. Es ist diese perspektivische Brechung, die dem Roman Spannung und Kontrast, Witz und Nuance verleiht – und ihn in seiner düsteren Schwere wohl überhaupt erst erträglich macht. (...) Denn so sehr Die Sandelholzstrafe als austarierter westlicher Roman daherkommt, so sehr ist sie zumal in ihrem typisierten Personal und ihrer bilderreichen Sprache eine chinesische Oper." - Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Andreas Breitenstein

  • "In fact, it is artfully written in the style of a local folk opera called Maoqiang (.....) Maoqiang opera is the symbol of Chinese tradition in the novel. But so is the art of inflicting cruel punishments "beyond the imagination of any European."" - Ian Buruma, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The details of human suffering end up co-opting the story, overshadowing larger, more nuanced points the author is trying to make." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The tone in Howard Goldblatt's admirable English translation is a frothy combination of opposites. Mo can be lively and vulgar one moment, lyrical and romantic the next. What unites both halves is a sensual awareness of the body and nature (.....) Sandalwood Death is a multi-layered historical epic bubbling over with language, ideas, perspectives and entertaining sub-plots." - James Kidd, South China Morning Post

  • "Sandalwood Death is more ambitious and thought-provoking. Its subject matter is rich with imaginative possibility (.....) At a line-by-line level, though, the language is again often slapdash or formulaic" - Julia Lovell, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sandalwood Death might be called an historical novel. It is set in China, largely in Gaomi county, during the time of the Boxer Rebellion, around 1900, and is partly based on actual events, with historical figures such as the Empress Dowager Cixi and German Plenipotentiary Clemens von Ketteler playing important roles in the story. Nevertheless, history is only a foundation for the story, and Mo Yan is less concerned with historical accuracy than with presenting a broader character and social study; beyond that, even, Sandalwood Death is decidedly a literary construct: it is fiction, and art.
       The novel is presented in three parts. The first part consists of four chapters, each narrated by a different character; in the third part they each again get their turn, with the addition of one more character and voice. The middle part is presented in the third person, the omniscient narrator in essence presenting the events that led up to the central event around which the entire novel revolves -- the 'sandalwood death' of the title. In addition, a local operatic genre, "Maoqiang, otherwise known as Cat Opera" provides an overlay of sorts throughout as, for example, each of the first-person chapters opens with a short stylized aria from a Maoqiang 'Sandalwood Death'. Eventually, opera and reality overlap even more closely.
       The figure at the heart of the novel is Sun Bing, "a reformer and an inheritor of the Maoqiang tradition". Only very late in the novel is a history and more detailed explanation of this operatic genre from Northeast Gaomi Township offered, but earlier it is succinctly described as:

The arias are exquisite, the staging unique, the ambience magical; in short, it is the ideal portrayal of life in the township.
       Nevertheless, there is little actual Maoqiang performance or description of it in the novel until one climactic scene, aside from the quoted arias (which are presented as separate from and thus only as introductory or complementary to the text proper). Yet this is very much a novel of staged performance: many of the actions (and especially interactions) between the characters are not formally scripted, but play out according to rules and tradition, from the deferential kowtowing in front of higher-place officials to the dance of the executions rituals that are central to the novel. Typically, too, theatricality extends so far that when some Germans are attacked they initially "thought it was an operatic troupe headed their way", rather than an armed band seeking to do them harm.
       The four figures that narrate the chapters in the novel's opening section are: Meiniang, the daughter of Sun Bing; her husband, Xiaojia, a simpleminded butcher; Zhao Jia, Xiaojia's father (and hence Meiniang's gongdieh -- father-in-law), a professional executioner; and Qian Ding, the local magistrate, who is also Meiniang's lover. The basic issue of conflict is immediately revealed -- and it's a doozie: Qian Ding has sentenced Meiniang's father to die, and Zhao Jia is to carry out the sentence. Or, as Meiniang puts it:
My gandieh has arrested my real dieh and wants my gongdieh to put him to death. So, Gandieh, Gongdieh, my real dieh's fate is in your hands.
       [The use of these terms -- gandieh, as the glossary explains, means 'a benefactor, surrogate father, "sugar-daddy"', while dieh simply means father -- can be a bit annoying (and confusing), but is effective in reminding readers again that the characters aren't just individuals but also specifically role-players in what amounts to a piece of theater; other secondary designations applied to the characters include 'Grandma' (Zhao Jia) and 'Chief Cat' (Sun Bing).]
       Sun Bing's execution is also meant to set a very strong example, which is why master executioner Zhao Jia -- with nine hundred and eighty-seven kills under his belt ("not counting those executions in which I assisted") -- is called in, and which is why just an ordinary execution won't do: something special is called for. Zhao Jia promises:
I will do everything in my power to ensure that his is a spectacular death, one that will go down in history.
       And later he assures Meiniang:
I am going to see that your dieh's name will live forever, that his legend will become the stuff of grand opera, just you wait and see !
       The authorities -- and Plenipotentiary von Ketteler, whom they must appease -- set the bar high. Simply cutting Sun Bing in half -- a popular method -- won't do:
The Plenipotentiary does not approve. He says death might come too fast and will not serve as a proper warning to people with evil thoughts in their heads. He would like you to find a uniquely cruel method that will inflict the maximum amount of suffering and draw it out as long as possible. The Plenipotentiary would like to see an execution where the subject holds out for at least five days.
       It's a tall order, but Zhao Jia has heard of a method that might do the trick -- the sandalwood death, which involves a pointed sandalwood stake and ... much unpleasantness. (Readers should be warned, by the way: the descriptions of the preparations for the execution, as well as of this and previous executions are detailed, graphic, and unsettling -- nothing for weak stomachs or impressionable children.)
       These requirements imposed by the authorities on the killing of Sun Bing ironically also necessitate a great effort to keep him alive, both before the execution -- he isn't meant to die by any other means -- and then during the process: his painful death is to be a drawn-out one, which of course proves difficult to achieve.
       Both the first and the third parts of the novel take place immediately before and around the planned execution, while the second part is a more sweeping look at the characters' live, providing some background, including about Zhao Jia's rise to prominence in the field, Sun Bing's crimes, and the magistrate.
       Sun Bing's crimes result from some Germans abusing his wife (Meiniang's stepmother); his reaction, and the explosively escalating series of retaliation back and forth that quickly follow lead to disaster. The Germans' overreaction to his initial response is outrageous, and pits the authorities -- cowed by the Germans' military might, and eager for the railway line they are constructing (a major source of friction with the locals) to be finished -- against the largely powerless locals, whom Sun Bing at least tries to give voice to, as it were (and, yes, in quite operatic fashion). Sun Bing's fate is sealed -- but Mo builds an astonishingly rousing tale around even this apparent and long-drawn out inevitability: Sandalwood Death is a superior adventure novel, among much else.
       The central characters, with their distinctive voices and perspectives, are very well-handled. Meiniang's blind passion for the magistrate (whose child she is carrying at the time everything comes to a head), tested by her deep love and the duty she feels towards her condemned father (and her blind hatred of her idiot husband) is the most difficult part for Mo to balance, and he veers into melodrama with her on occasion -- not surprisingly, since this set-up asks a lot from the character. Nevertheless, her part is a fascinating one too, as is her uneasy relationship with the magistrate's wife -- an incredibly ugly woman, of a different social class (most obviously seen in the fact that she has bound feet, while Meiniang doesn't), and one who is torn between jealousy and duty too.
       The executioner is a consummate professional, and there's a great deal of detail about that profession, too -- fascinating if also gory stuff, from the practice-sessions for the 'slicing-death' on pigs in a butcher shop (which just leads to lots of pigs-meat for dumplings) to the actual use of these techniques on a human being. His simple-minded son offers a more direct and simpler perspective on things, while the magistrate finds himself in a difficult position as representative of the officialdom that he has little influence on. As he is also reminded: "A conscience has no place in the life of an official."
       Mo Yan's voice(s) (and Howard Goldblatt's translation) show him in full command of the story for almost the entire book. There are rare slips -- "His eyes slitted open, sending icy rays my way", for example -- and in the middle part, narrated in the third person, there are some awful attempts at imagery:
     A clear and very bright moon hung high in the sky, looking like a naked beauty. The third-watch gong had just sounded, and the county town lay in stillness. Smells of nature -- plants and trees and insects and fish -- were carried on the summer-night breeze to cover heaven and earth like fine gauze decorated with pearl ornaments.
       The round moon like a naked woman ? Smells like a gauze-cover ? You can imagine where Mo was going with these ideas -- but he didn't get there. Fortunately, this sort of over-writing is very rare in the novel -- so rare that this and a few other passages stand out like sore thumbs in an otherwise exceptionally well- and clearly written, very creative but still largely realist work.
       Sandalwood Death is also a suspenseful action-novel, with a good deal of conflict (including a beard-war) and a variety of resolutions. It's a long book -- the four-hundred pages are pretty densely printed; this clocks in at somewhere near two-hundred-thousand words -- but there is barely a moment of respite in it, and it's a really good read (granted: if you can stomach the bloodier parts).
       Despite being loosely based on history, Sandalwood Death is also all the more remarkable for how it doesn't treat history -- in how, for example, the figure of the reprehensible von Ketteler is handled here (as opposed to what became of him in fact, which could easily have become a much more dominating part of any novel that gives him a significant role). History here is, in essence, taken for granted (and no doubt Sandalwood Death is easier appreciated by those with some familiarity with 1900 China), and what Mo Yan offers is a novel grounded in it, but rising far beyond it too.
       A superior work of fiction, highly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2013

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Sandalwood Death: Reviews: Mo Yan: Other books by Mo Yan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Mo Yan (莫言) was born in 1955. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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