The 109th recipient of the Nobel prize in literature was announced on 11 October. His name is Mo Yan, aged 57 at the time of the announcement, and he is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award. Mo Yan, ‘who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary’, is often referred to as the Chinese response to Kafka and Joseph Heller.
Mo Yan’s work deals mainly with social issues, trauma, and sexuality. His signature techniques are social realism and magical realism, profoundly influenced by the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who was the 1982 literature Nobel laureate. His work is also deeply connected to Chinese myths and folklore tales. He prefers to write his novels on traditional Chinese paper using only ink and a writing brush, because he believes that typing limits the vocabulary. Mo Yan is actually a pen name, meaning ‘don’t speak’ in Chinese, which reflects the political situation in China during the 1950s, when people were afraid to speak their mind in the open, because of an acute danger of political persecution.
Guan Moye (Yan’s real name), was born in 1955 to a family of farmers. He left school at the age of 12, during the Cultural Revolution, to go work in the fields and join the army, where he completed his education. His literary success came in 1987 with the novel Red Sorghum, later on turned into a successful movie by Zhang Yimou. The book is a retelling of the shockingly cruel events following Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s. His second novel, The Garlic Ballads, tells the true story of the Gaomi farmers’ riot against the government, which at the time refused to buy their produce. Yan’s third book, The Republic of Wine, is a satire employing cannibalism as a metaphor for Chinese self-destruction. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is another of Yan’s novels. It explores the female body and the attitudes towards it, using different models, such as an elderly woman whose breasts are shattered by Japanese bullets. The book caused some controversy in China, because of its portrayal of Chinese soldiers as merciless murderers. His most recent work, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, was written in only 42 days. It could be classified as historical fiction, because it looks into Chinese development in the second half of the twentieth century, through the themes of reincarnation, mortality, progress and decay.
So what are the implications of this award? On the bright side, it will hopefully open the Western market for Chinese literature. Mo Yan himself advocates reading Western literature and believes that Chinese writers will only benefit from widened literary horizons, so perhaps, influenced by him, more Chinese readers will try and get themselves acquainted with Western literature cannon and contemporary fiction, thus establishing a two-way cultural exchange.
As usual, when an award that produces such hype is concerned, there is always some sort of controversy around it. And in this particular case it is not hard to guess that the controversy is of political nature. Mo Yan has been accused that he is not political enough and is too close to the ruling party and the authorities. As to whether or not this is the case, his award poses some interesting questions. Is the Nobel prize committee trying to make a political statement by giving the prize to a Chinese author? Or is it just trying to open the Western market to Chinese literature? What does the Western world really know about the social and political situation in China? What is the role of literature in all this? As if to refute the charges, Mo Yan spoke in defence of Liu Xiaobo, only a few hours after his win was announced to the world. “I hope he [Liu] can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.”, he said, as reported in the Guardian. Liu, a writer, literary critic and human rights activist, campaigned for political reforms and called for the end of the communist rule in China, which resulted in a sentence of 11 years in prison. Mo Yan also claims that whoever accuses him of political allegiance with the authorities has not read his books.
According to the Swedish Academy head Peter Englund, “He [Mo Yan] has such a damn unique way of writing. If you read half a page of Mo Yan you immediately recognise it as him”. And indeed, MoYan’s work is so sadly beautiful that it hurts and leaves a mark in the reader’s soul.
Literature is a medium of representation of reality; a medium through which we reach worlds otherwise inaccessible for us. Some might even say it is a form of escapism. There is no right or wrong answer here. As there is not a right or wrong answer concerning Mo Yan’s fiction. His political convictions, whatever they might be, could or could not change your attitude toward his books, depending on how you approach them. So, let us allow ourselves to enjoy Mo Yang’s work for what it is, before we start over-analysing and scrutinising it, determined to find a drawer in our society where it fits so we can label it, compartmentalise it, and never think about it again.
Words by Ava Dikova
Follow Ava on Twitter at @AvaDikova