China’s “First” Nobel Writer

Oct 12 2012 @ 2:57pm

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Chinese writer Mo Yan just won the Nobel Prize for literature for a body of work that includes Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads. Howard Goldblatt, a Mo Yan translator, describes the writer's style:

Mo is a "maximalist" (if there is such a word), a writer who extensively probes the Chinese language for its expressive qualities. He is, as well, a writer whose work appeals to all the senses. … When I read Mo I'm often reminded of Dickens … big, bold works with florid, imagistic, powerful writing and a strong moral core. 

Sheila Melvin explains the award's political significance:

He is the second Chinese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  However, the first – Gao Xingjian – lives in Paris and is a French citizen who says he has no intention of ever returning to China.  Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Peace Prize, is a literary critic who is imprisoned in China for his political activities.  Chinese press coverage is thus calling the prize, China’s "first."

The awarding of the prize to Mo Yan will certainly be seen in China as another step in the nation’s cultural rise.  It will also finally help lay to rest the Nobel Literature Prize obsession that has possessed China’s cultural and literary establishment for decades now – a mania that Liu Xiaobo, when he was a free man, called “childish.”

Duncan Hewitt notes that "critics of China’s record on freedom of expression have suggested that the Nobel committee may have been seeking to appease Beijing following China’s anger at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010." However, Mo's political allegiances are far from clear. Andy Jacobs and Sarah Lyall note that Mo publicly defended Gao Xingjian's emigration to France. And then there are the subversive themes of his books, something John Updike captured in a 2005 New Yorker essay:

Mo Yan’s portrait of Chinese history has met ire on the mainland. Goldblatt quotes one critic as calling the novel “a sycophantic, shameless work that turns history upside down, fabricates lies, and glorifies the Japanese fascists and the Landlord Restoration Corps.” The Japanese forces, whose invasion is the principal event of “Red Sorghum,” are relatively shadowy in this novel; but even a Western reader insensitive to the fine points of the civil conflict that placed Mao in power must notice that in this book Communist programs and propaganda are played mostly for laughs, and that the most praiseworthy men, the Sima brothers, are associated with the old, bourgeois regime and the Nationalist Army.

Granta has an excerpt from one of Mo's short stories. The Guardian rounds up his books. 

(Photo: Mo Yan attends a premier of a TV series in Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang province, on July 19, 2012. By STR/AFP/Getty Images)