Mo Yan (莫言) has won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2012. On a personal level, and perhaps it is a bit silly to put it like this, I’m happy that this year’s prize, like last year’s (Tomas Tranströmer), has been awarded to an author I’ve actually read.
Chinese prizes are often controversial, one way or another. When Liu Xiaobo got the peace prize, American and European media outlets lauded the decision and quickly began reporting about the lack of reports in the Chinese press. When the latter finally began to surly comment on the whole thing, it led to counter-reports in the Western media. This dance has repeated itself in other cases and both sides just tend to say their standard lines, so when the dance was turned on its head this week, it was slightly amusing to see disgruntled reports in the Western press. As amusing as these debates might be, I don’t find them very substantial, and it says almost nothing about the object of the controversy.
While many Chinese might not have known a lot about Liu Xiaobo, most of the comments in the foreign press seems to be from people who haven’t read anything by Mo Yan. Perhaps this is not surprising as much contemporary literature in China haven’t been translated to other languages. The Nobel Prize of Literature has been criticized for awarding authors that are not mainstream, but what this shows is often more the ethnocentrism of the critics than anything else. Authors that are awarded are almost always mainstream in their own countries. The prize itself has gone from being a very Europe-centered affair back in the early and middle 20th century, to something more substantially global the last decades, though one can of course question the choices of the committee (*).
My own first contact with Mo Yan was back in 2001 when I read the novel “红树林”. Not one of his more famous works, I found it a very apt description of the corruption and bleak materialism of the then newly formed upper class of China. Other books seems to have left a stronger impression on me, but the same year his “檀香刑” (Sandalwood Death) was published, and made quite a bit of a stir. Written in a local dialectal style, the book is an orgy in violence committed by European occupiers, boxers and local rulers. The “sandalwood punishment” is very graphically described and I’m not going to go into the gruesome details here, but suffice it to say that it’s on the same level of torture as the lingchi procedure, which has been described elsewhere.
Mo Yan’s style is pretty straightforward language-wise, but due to the often very extreme things described, it tends to leave strong feelings in its wake. The first book mentioned above seemed to describe a smaller part of society at the time, but if I had read it today I would probably have found it more descriptive of the general mood in Chinese society. Like some other famous authors in China, like Yu Hua (余华), Mo has gradually gone from describing the past to the present of urban China. Personally I find the modern urban descriptions more interesting than his works on the past, but I have a feelings it’s mostly for the former that the prize was awarded. The often absurd history of China’s past before the reforms and even the revolution in 1949 lends itself better to the “magic realist” style the Nobel committee mentioned.
Is Mo Yan the most fitting choice for a Chinese author? I’ll leave that to others to decide, but I definitely think he deserves the prize. Hopefully it can lead to a wider audience for contemporary Chinese works in other parts of the world. As pointed out in this article, written by a French translator of Chinese works, publishing companies in the West stay away from a lot of current Chinese literature because it’s an unknown for them. Now, the vibrant and fascinating literature of 21st century China might reach a wider audience.
* The Peace Prize is even more controversial, this year being awarded to the EU, while previously having been given to Barack Obama when his presidency had hardly started, Al Gore, Yitzhak Rabin or Yasser Arafat, to name a few. Sometimes it seems the prize represents hope more than anything else.