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Mo Yan in the media

It’s already over a month since Mo Yan 莫言 won the Nobel prize in literature, and all the news papers flared up with his image, discussions of ”why him?” and questions as to what he would do with the prize money. At the time I was so humbled by all the informed commentaries on the political aspects of the event that I didn’t feel like writing about it.

Recently however, as I was travelling from Qingdao to Beijing, going 300 km/h on a fast train, I had a glimpse of Gaomi 高密, the town where Mo Yan grew up and which have inspired many of his literary landscapes and it got me thinking of it again. (Apparently the town might soon be turned into a Mo Yan-theme park, but as I sped past I didn’t notice any sign of the approaching changes.)

At the time of the prize-giving many discussions revolved around questions as to why Lu Xun (the father of modern Chinese fiction) had never got it; why it had taken China so long to get one (Gao Xingjian who won the prize in 2010 is not recognized as a Chinese writer because he lives in France and has French citizenship, so though he is culturally Chinese – Huaren 华人, he is not a Chinese citizen – Zhongguoren中国人); and around Mo Yan’s status as party member.

Gaomi seen from train window

My favourite Mo Yan novel is Republic of Wine (酒国) from 2005, in which he compassionately and with great self-awareness investigates human weakness as expressed through corruption, pride and lust. Though he does not explicitly denounce the communist party in public or in his novels, his writings surely reveal some ugly truths about all of us. The interesting aspects of his works are general and relating to the human condition rather than a specific political situation.

The insistence of some western critics that all Chinese works must be about China, thus understandable only in a Chinese political context, and considering the label ‘Banned in China’ as the best recommendation is in my eyes an expression of a new kind of Orientalism. If only the politically correct authors should be awarded, political standpoint superseding literary quality, now that would be political censorship on an international level.

I’m not saying there is nothing to criticize, not saying that all Mo Yan’s works are brilliant, just that when enjoying a literary work, political correctness is not the first thing I look for. I also love Knut Hamsun’s work even though politically he supported the national socialist party.

Just like the landscape of Gaomi speeding past my train window, Mo Yan’s best novels present a blurred and slightly drunken image of a world governed by weak and complex human beings, always changing, never allowing us to stand still for one moment to get the whole objective picture. We are all part of it. Even we literary critics, who like to stand on the sideline and criticize everything, are part of it. Eating forbidden fruits, performing good deeds for ulterior motives, displaying kindness because of vanity, hurting people because of love, sometimes riding high above the world in brief spells of ecstasy, sometimes ending up throwing up in a ditch.

Regardless of political standpoint I would advise anyone to read some of Mo Yan’s works, even though they might be sold out at the moment. But I would also advice readers to look beyond the Nobel committee’s narrow lens, and start investigating Chinese literature on their own. There are several good platforms introducing Chinese literature in translation, including Renditions magazine, Paper Republic and MCLC Resouce Center.

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