Mo Yan: A rebel, a conformist and a decidedly mainstream choice
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Thursday 11 October 2012
The Swedish Academy has a dismal record on Chinese literature. Absurdly, the first writer on China to win a Nobel Prize in Literature was the American author of peasant epics Pearl Buck in 1938.
Although the Academy made partial amends with Gao Xingjian in 2000, by that point the visionary artist-writer lived in exile in Paris, a French citizen. So, remarkably, the novelist Mo Yan today became the first indisputably Chinese laureate in literature.
But, given the sprawling vitality of writing in the new superpower, have the secretive selectors of Stockholm made the right choice? Advocates of the more openly dissident novelist Yan Lianke, or the superlative poet Bei Dao, will not be pleased. But Mo Yan (a teasing pen name, which means "Don't Speak", for Guan Moye from Shandong) is certainly a mainstream pick: popular at home, widely translated abroad, even - via Zhang Yimou's lavish movie of his Red Sorghum - the source of a big-screen global blockbuster.
After his strong showing in pre-match speculation, the Chinese media buzzed with Mo-related analysis. This year, no one can accuse the Academy of springing an obscure surprise on a baffled world.
As with many leading Chinese authors, Mo - who first emerged in the 1980s as one of the "roots-seeking" writers of rural life - can appear as both a rebel and a conformist according to the occasion. His generation learned the hard way the art of timing, and of compromise. Novels such as The Republic of Wine, The Garlic Ballads and Big Breasts, Wide Hips have allowed English-speaking readers to appreciate his exuberant and earthy blend of rustic folk-tale, historical upheaval and even a touch of that old Nobel favourite, "magic realism".
He belongs with those novelists who have dug deep into small places to find huge stories of social transformation, lifted by high-flying imagination.
If you wish to bracket Mo with other Nobel laureates, think William Faulkner, Gunter Grass and (especially) Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Speaking to China Daily, however, his excellent translator Howard Goldblatt drew another comparison: "When I read Mo I'm often reminded of Dickens… big, bold works with florid, imagistic, powerful writing and a strong moral core."
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