The 2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature Is Chinese Novelist Mo Yan
October 11, 2012 4:27 AM   Subscribe

Mo Yan has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. A Chinese novelist, born as Guan Moye, his pen name means "don't speak." His most famous novel, Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, was turned into an acclaimed film in 1987. Here are some interviews with Mo Yan: Granta, National Endowment for the Humanities and Paper Republic. Speculation was rife in China before the announcement whether Mo Yan would receive it, and the matter was controversial. For people who haven't read any books by Mo Yan, the Swedish Academy recommends Garlic Ballads [NYT]. For more news over the day, keep an eye on The Literary Saloon and The Guardian's liveblog.
posted by Kattullus (24 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Mo Yan 101 from the NEH. Excerpt:
Over the last three decades, Mo Yan has consistently pushed his craft into new realms of experimentation. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), he charts a massive saga through the intertwined lives of the friends, relatives, and enemies of a landlord named Ximen Nao. The twist? Ximen Nao is murdered at the beginning of the novel, in 1949, a victim of the Land Reform movement, and the subsequent years, 1950 to 2000, are told largely from the various perspectives of his reincarnations as a donkey, an ox, a pig, a monkey, and, finally, a boy with an abnormally large head.
posted by Kattullus at 4:43 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

What I really like about the Nobel prize is that every bookshop scurries to carry books by the winning author. In other words, I will probably get to read something by Mo Yan.
posted by ersatz at 4:47 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry Haruki. Maybe next time.
posted by Kevtaro at 5:05 AM on October 11, 2012

Mo Yan is awesome. Read and liked Red Sorghum so much that I ended up doing a thesis on the book. A richly deserved honor.
posted by the cydonian at 5:11 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another tidbit from the NEH website:
When Chinese novelist Mo Yan opened a translated volume of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, he encountered Yoknapatawpha, the fictional county in Mississippi that Faulkner populated with people like those he knew in real life.

“After reading Faulkner, I realized that my own experience and my own life could become stories and literature,” said Mo. “The people that I’m familiar with, the villages, they can all become characters.” Mo has become one of China’s most prolific authors, setting his novels in a fictional village based on his hometown in China’s Shandong province.
Translating Culture: American and Chinese Scholars and Artists Gather for Roundtable Discussions.
posted by Kattullus at 5:14 AM on October 11, 2012

Among Mo Yan's "sins" in the sudden avalanche of censure is his copying of a Mao Zedong speech given 70 years ago that largely set the parameters for China's arts and literature in the ensuing decades.

I can't believe the Committee would honor a plagiarist like that.
posted by Egg Shen at 5:33 AM on October 11, 2012

Granta also published one of his stories. It's online: Frogs.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 5:50 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

In other literature-related news, apparently Salman Rushdie spent his time in hiding playing Super Mario World.
posted by ersatz at 6:05 AM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't believe the Committee would honor a plagiarist like that.

Swedish papers say that Mo is "not at all in conflict with the government." It seems like he is an "acceptable" choice.

Moreover there seems to be some little controversy that the Chinese were tipped off in advance which explains the large number of Chinese journalists in the city (true, I almost ran over some of them on my bicycle - sorry about that). Apparently the Committee only issues a limited number of press credentials - never before to the state-run Chinese media - but this year they did. Surely a scandal.

Anyway, I'm sure that the fact that Chinese companies now own Volvo and Saab had no influence whatsoever on the Swedish judges......
posted by three blind mice at 7:32 AM on October 11, 2012

John Updike's review of Big Breasts & Wide Hips from The New Yorker. Excerpt:
This author, born in 1955 into a peasant family in northern China, sets a groaning table of brutal incident, magic realism, woman-worship, nature description, and far-flung metaphor. The Chinese novel, perhaps, had no Victorian heyday to teach it decorum; certainly both Su Tong and Mo Yan are cheerfully free with the physical details that accompany sex, birth, illness, and violent death. Right at the start of “Big Breasts & Wide Hips,” we are witness to two difficult births, one by the very long-suffering heroine, Shangguan Lu, and the other by a donkey:
The donkey struggled, yellow liquid shot out of its nostrils as its head jerked around and banged on the ground. Down at the other end, amniotic fluid and wet, sticky feces sprayed the area.
As an aside, there's this rather uncomfortable possibly revealing passage from Updike: "So impressive and ardent are Jintong’s evocations of nursing’s primal pleasure that this reader was slow to realize that Mo Yan intended our hero to be not a healthily typical male but a case of arrested development."
posted by Kattullus at 7:40 AM on October 11, 2012

The insinuation that Mo is a government hack is really not fair. He's vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers' Association, so it's not like he's about to come out and sign Charter 08 any time soon, but his novels are far from being Chinese Communist Party apologia, and he himself has been about as liberal as it's possible to be within the strictures of a senior CWA position. My sense (without having met the guy) is that his refusal to comment on Liu Xiaobo's case, his copying of Chairman Mao's talk from Yan'an, etc. are almost certainly things that are required of him by his position in the CWA, rather than anything he would have done under his own steam.
For Mo and other Chinese authors, it's not a matter of cowardice or bravery; it's a matter of relevance versus irrelevance. Direct criticism of the government as in the work of Liao Yiwu or Ma Jian (both now in exile) plays well overseas, but is not realistic for most authors given the state of publisher- and government-enforced censorship in China. (And a lot of the really overtly political stuff is just not very good, though nobody wants to say this when people are risking their freedom to write it.) Criticism couched in metaphor or historical analogy, as in Mo's work, has a long, long tradition in China -- consider, e.g., the demonstrators on Tian'anmen Square in 1976 who denounced Wu Zetian as a proxy for Jiang Qing -- going all the way back to Qu Yuan.

The Garlic Ballads and Red Sorghum are both good starting points, though people who prefer short fiction may want to check out Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh! first. Howard Goldblatt has been translating Mo's work into English for like 20 years now, and has done most of Mo's major novels. (Frogs, an excerpt of which is linked upstream, is a full-length novel, not a short story. Goldblatt is currently working on another Mo Yan novel, 檀刑/The Sandalwood Punishment, but maybe Frogs will be next.)
posted by bokane at 9:10 AM on October 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm sure that the fact that Chinese companies now own Volvo and Saab had no influence whatsoever on the Swedish judges.

Yes, I too am sure of this!

I know this nonsense isn't really worth the trouble in a thread that should be celebrating Mo Yan and pointing (as it has, helpfully) to starting-points for outsiders to his work. But anyway, sometimes I think it'd be a fun project to compile some of the bizarrest conspiracy ideas about literary awards and think more about their underlying assumptions — maybe it's time to go look at what Jim English's The Economy of Prestige has to say on the topic, in fact. I mean, the false premises this weird insinuation depends on are so many, and at such radical variance with the actual world, that I don't quite understand how you could sustain belief in them for even the time it took to type it out.

"So impressive and ardent are Jintong’s evocations of nursing’s primal pleasure"

Jesus Christ, Updike even figured out a way to get his dick into a book review

posted by RogerB at 9:31 AM on October 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I mean, the false premises this weird insinuation depends on are so many, and at such radical variance with the actual world, that I don't quite understand how you could sustain belief in them for even the time it took to type it out..

Mo Yan mo problems, yo.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:58 AM on October 11, 2012

RogerB: I think it'd be a fun project to compile some of the bizarrest conspiracy ideas about literary awards

There were a few conspiracy theories in Iceland regarding why Halldór Laxness got the 1955 Nobel. My favorite is that the publishing arm of the Swedish farmer's cooperative movement had taken a bet on him selling well so had overprinted his books massively. So the farmer's cooperative movement used its influence with the Swedish Academy to get him the Nobel, thereby ensuring its stock would sell out.
posted by Kattullus at 10:04 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was quite a lot of speculation on Chinese forums about Moyan's Nobel chances during the runup, mostly because there's a Swedish betting website (Unibet?) that was giving out very good odds for him (and Murakami).
posted by of strange foe at 11:26 AM on October 11, 2012

A wire just in from Stockholm:

posted by Herodios at 11:47 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Went to Netflix to add Red Sorghum to my queue but didn't find it, although I did add a bunch of Gong Li films.
posted by e1c at 12:14 PM on October 11, 2012

Three blind mice: the article in your link (in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter)

Apparently the Committee only issues a limited number of press credentials - never before to the state-run Chinese media - but this year they did. Surely a scandal.

says the opposite of what you claim it does. In Dagens Nyheter the chancellor (not sure about the correct translation of his title) of the Swedish Academy as well as its secretary Peter Englund deny that Chinese media have been specially invited to the announcement of the prize. Peter Englund:

– This is NOT true. We do not invite anyone, ever. We tell the world when we will make our announcement, then journalists need to apply. That is all.
posted by Termite at 12:49 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have to admit: It's oddly poignant that one of the few authors in China able to have mass appeal and still manage to maintain the prickly, fickle favour of the powers that be writes under the pen name Mo Yan (莫言) — "Don't Speak", by his own admission chosen to remind himself to hold his tongue.

Like with Copernicus, we'll have to wait until his deathbed.
posted by flippant at 5:34 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've read two of his novels. The Reincarnation one is really quite beautiful. I am curious about the politics of this, and of his work in general, though--he does seem to be complacent in a power structure that is quite dangerous to writers who are not in that power structure.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:52 PM on October 11, 2012

China Nobel winner Mo Yan calls for jailed laureate's freedom.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out, now that the government has fallen over itself praising both Mo and the Nobel prize.

Good on him either way — this was a brave move.
posted by flippant at 3:04 AM on October 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

The upcoming translation of Mo Yan's Pow! is apparently getting an earlier publishing date. Here's an article about the book. Excerpt:
In POW! Mo Yan writes in the voice of a child. The narrator is adult, he has decided to become a Buddhist monk, but his childhood has not left him. He recounts his experience of childhood to a certain silent Wise Monk in a ruined temple; his story flows uncontrollably. ‘Verbal diarrhea’, that disgusting cliché that I have always hated, now begins to make sense. Make no mistake about it—the flow in POW! is not just verbal. Having mostly read very middle-class-friendly books, where even the most passionate sex is prettified and lifted above the dailiness of life, POW! is most disconcerting in its obsession with the physical and the vulgar. The brutal genius of Mo Yan lies not just in making you identify with characters and situations as all great literature does but also in his refusal to omit the minutest, ugliest, most embarrassing detail of any experience. The ugliness makes the experience eerily intimate:

[T]he old woman hobbled up to me, took a piece of turnip from her mouth and stuffed it into mine. That was sort of revolting, I don’t deny it. But thoughts of how pigeons exchange food turned revulsion into intimacy. I was reminded of something that had occurred in the past. It was back when my father had gone off to the northeast and Mother and I were surviving by dealing in scrap. We were taking a break at a roadside stall. . . . A blind couple with a chubby, fair-skinned baby were eating at the stall. The baby, obviously hungry, was crying. The woman, hearing my mother’s voice, asked if she would feed the baby. So Mother took the baby from her and a hard biscuit from the man, which she chewed into pulp before feeding him mouth to mouth. . . . I swallowed the turnip the old woman had put in my mouth and suddenly felt sharp-eyed and clear-headed.

I have seen this happen in my country, in my culture, on the streets, on the trains. But I have never read it in a book. Realism is newly defined, all its orifices gaping wide.
More on Mo Yan speaking up in support of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei's reaction to it:
His pen name might translate as "don't speak", but Chinese Nobel literature prize winner Mo Yan has just spoken out about the plight of his jailed fellow laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Xiaobo, the dissident who is currently serving 11 years in jail for "subversion", won the Nobel peace prize in 2010, sparking an angry reaction from the Chinese authorities. Mo Yan – whose real name is Guan Moye – took the literature Nobel on Thursday, prompting celebrations from state media, although prominent Chinese names have criticised the Nobel jury's decision to award the prize to a writer close to the establishment, with Ai Weiwei calling it "an insult to humanity and to literature".

The dissident artist added: "He has been very clearly pursuing the party's line and in several cases he has shown no respect for the independence of intellectuals."

But yesterday, speaking to reporters in his home town, Mo Yan said: "I hope he [Liu] can achieve his freedom as soon as possible." The Red Sorghum author went on to add that although he had read some of Liu's literary criticism in the 1980s, he "had no understanding of Liu's work once it had turned towards politics", Reuters reported.

A tweet from journalist Mark MacKinnon, East Asia correspondent for Canada' Globe and Mail, said he had spoken to Ai about Mo Yan's comments. "He says he's 'very surprised' to hear Mo Yan spoke out for Liu Xiaobo. 'If he really did... I'm very grateful to him.'"

Yesterday also saw Mo Yan tell press that he wanted "to express my gratitude to all friends who support me, as well as those who criticise me".

"My works are Chinese literature, which is part of world literature. They show the life of Chinese people as well as the country's unique culture and folk customs," he said. "Meanwhile, my novels described human beings in the broad sense. I wrote in the perspective of a human being. These works stand beyond regions and ethnic groups."
[Source: The Guardian]

Finally, a fascinating discussion about Mo Yan on PBS' Newshour.
posted by Kattullus at 2:29 PM on October 13, 2012

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