Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

And the Nobel for literature goes to...

  • Print

Philip Roth will have to wait another year. Should he have won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature? Assuredly. Instead, the Swedish Academy has thrust author Mo Yan into the spotlight.

Literature’s newest laureate is the first resident Chinese winner in the prize’s 111-year history. Though China-born Gao Xingjian won in 2000, he was an unpopular choice back home, having taken French citizenship several years before.As translator Howard Goldblatt has said of The Garlic Ballads, which Mo Yan wrote in less than a month in response to a struggle between poor garlic farmers and corrupt officials, the author is "political, if not polemical."

Satire is his chief weapon and he is as likely to be found slyly sending up his countrymen’s taste for extreme culinary delicacies as the state’s shabby dealings with its peasants. Peter Englund, head of the Swedish Academy, said that when the author heard he’d won, he was "overjoyed and scared." An acceptance speech is going to pose special challenges for a Chinese author whose pen name translates as "don’t speak."

After Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, China censored the news and placed him in detention. This time the criticism has come from Chinese liberals, who point to Mo Yan’s participation in a project to commemorate a speech given by Mao Zedong in 1942 about the role of artists.

So where does this leave the award itself? Mo Yan is far from being a winner without merit, and represents a move away from recent Eurocentricity.

That said, the Nobel’s prize money has already been diminished due to the financial crisis. If the literary medal is to retain its cultural luster, it must remain wholly international in outlook, something it becomes harder to claim the longer North American talent is ignored.

In certain respects, Mo Yan’s work has an affinity with that of American author Pearl Buck, whose epic descriptions of life in rural China helped her win the 1938 prize. His writing has also been compared to that of Laurence Sterne, William Faulkner and Francois Rabelais. You’ll find tinges of Latin America’s magic realists, too, even if Mo Yan says they haven’t influenced him.

Mo Yan was born in 1955 in Gaomi, a city in northern China whose surrounds are the setting for most of his fiction. His hardscrabble childhood was rich in folktales; much of it was spent tending livestock in the fields and later, during the Cultural Revolution, toiling in factories.

With little by way of formal schooling, he joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1976. He wrote his earliest work while still serving as an officer and his breakthrough came in 1987 with Red Sorghum, which fictionalizes three generations of freedom fighters during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was made into a film and was translated into English in 1993.

In the decades since, he has amassed a body of largely historical novels that draw on folklore to probe his nation’s turbulent heritage while meditating more universally on human nature.

There are supernatural touches, as in Thirteen Steps, whose caged protagonist begs for chalk with which to inscribe tales of miraculous happenings.

Earthy sensuality can be found, too. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, a brick-thick novel encompassing most of China’s 20th century, opens with descriptions of bosoms and buttocks and goes on to make a metaphor of the female body.

Mo Yan is particularly fond of animal imagery, using it to visceral effect.

In his recent novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Lord Yama, king of the underworld, sends a landowner named Ximen back to his village as "a white-hoofed donkey with floppy, tender lips." His transformation is preceded by a vivid birth scene. Ximen then cycles through reincarnations as an ox, a pig, a dog and a monkey before returning to human form.

To the Western reader, China’s literature can seem as exotic as its opera. By blending family sagas rooted in the past with glimpses of a fast-changing present in which capitalist converts dream up Cultural Revolution theme parks, Mo Yan offers a deepened understanding of far more besides.

And yet as his homeland’s 21st-century story is confirming, ours is an increasingly globalized age. Just look to his neighbor and this year’s Nobel favorite, Haruki Murakami, for proof that cross-pollination with the likes of Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald can have exhilarating results. The Swedish Academy would do well to take note.

 

Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News.

 

—Bloomberg News

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Theresa Oswald Leadership Bid

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Young goslings are growing up quickly near Cresent Lake in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba- See Bryksa 30 Day goose project- Day 11- May 15, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A goose heads for shade in the sunshine Friday afternoon at Woodsworth Park in Winnipeg - Day 26– June 22, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

How will you be spending the holiday season? (select all that apply)

View Results

Ads by Google