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.