Saturday, 27 October 2012

Mo Yan and the Nobel Prize

There might well be room for debate about this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but I reckon Mo Yan fully deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ever since the death of Shen Congwen, China has lacked a serious contender for the prize, mainly because Chinese literature had such a desperate time between 1949 and the late 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution a mere 12 novels were published per year on average but, even before then, Chinese fiction suffered terribly. However, when China began to open up in the late '70s and early '80s, there was also a renaissance of Chinese writing and the greatest author to have emerged at that time was Mo Yan.

(And no, I haven't forgotten Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000. I suspect it came as as much of a surprise to him as to followers of Chinese literature both inside and out of the country.)

Arguably Mo Yan's greatest novel was one of his first, Red Sorghum, a great war novel which, like J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, redefines the very way in which we see the Second World War. For a start it reminds us that there was more to the war than what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945. More significantly, it also challenged Maoist versions of Chinese history, which is why it was originally published by the Liberation Army Publishing House with some rather significant cuts.

I haven't got space here to give a full book review but it's certainly worth a read, though you'd have to tread carefully before teaching it to school children.

Mo Yan often raises deals with topics which are of great interest to Catholics even if the way in which he deals with such topics is often far from Catholic. For example, from as early as his 1986 short story, 'Abandoned Child', through to later works such as the often savagely surreal The Republic of Wine and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (perhaps the most readable of his later works), he examines the place of children in modern China, showing a specific interest in children, child abandonment, and adoption.

Another common approach in his work is the use of an unconventional family history to challenge conventional Chinese political history. Sadly, he has not always escaped religious prejudice in his attempt to challenge political prejudices. In Big Breasts and Wide Hips, for example, one of the main characters develops a bizarre breast fixation that stunts his emotional growth into adulthood partly because he is the illegitimate son of a cowardly Christian (and possibly Catholic) missionary priest.

Mo Yan's work is challenging in many ways but he's clearly a highly significant author from a country which is going to become culturally as well as politically and economically more important as the century progresses. We in the West need to engage with works like his.

So let's finish, slightly flippantly, with a view from China: it's a real sign of the times when the People's Daily seems to be more interested in how much money Mo Yan is going to make from winning the prize than in his cultural value.

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