The 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan. Welcoming the imaginative vitality of the author, Nobel jury said he was particularly sensitive to the "hallucinatory realism" of his stories mingling "folk tales, history and recent events”.
At 57, Mo Yan becomes the 109th winner of the most prestigious award letters world, succeeding Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. It is also the second Chinese rewarded after Gao Xinjian, French nationality, who was rewarded by The Swedish jury in 2000.
Mo Yan’s writing has gained him a considerable audience – not only in China, but overseas, where he is considered one of the most talented and interesting of China’s writers.
Mo Yan (real name Guan Moye) was born in 1956 in rural Shandong, north eastern China. At the age of twenty, he joined the People’s Liberation Army. He began writing in 1981 and entered the Literature Department of the PLA Art Academy in 1984.
His published works include over forty short stories and three novels. The film version of one of these, Red Sorghum, won first prize in the Golden Bear awards at the Berlin Film festival in 1988.
Mo Yan is a writer of power and originality whose work captures the soul of the Chinese countryside. Internationally, he is best known for his long family saga, Red Sorghum.
In his depiction of Gaomi County in far north eastern Shandong, the setting of Red Sorghum and much of his other work, rich strands of history, family tales and legend, folksong and humour are woven together to create a microcosm of rural China, “unquestionably the prettiest and the ugliest, the most other-worldly and the most mundane, the most sacred and the most profane, the most heroic and the most contemptible, the most hard-drinking and the most romantic place on earth.”
This is a place, Mo Yan has remarked, where anything can happen.
The beauty as well as the enormity of the harsh life of Chinese peasants is explored with keen feeling, an unrelenting eye and frequently, biting humour.
Many of the present generation of authors who have written about the countryside are “educated youth” sent down to learn from the peasants through manual labour during the Cultural Revolution.
Mo Yan is a peasant himself. Born in Gaomi County in 1956, he is part of the people he writes about: their hopes and dreams, passions, suffering, failures and disappointments.
The new realistic critique does not concern him. He does not write in his stories about the need for reform, nor the failure of reforms, nor economic or political reverses, nor even cultural crisis, but about human feelings and actions in a society which is the product of these abstractions.
His characters are not passive, they act; they bid, in however limited or warped ways, for freedom, for control over their own lives, for release from back-breaking manual labour, arranged relationships, sexual frustration, traditional mores and customs.
After decades of isolation, Mo Yan’s generation of authors have had access to the works of a wide range of contemporary foreign authors in Chinese translation, including, most importantly for Mo Yan, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
It is no surprise that his richly imagined fictional world, Gaomi County, should be compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
The overwhelming density of Mo Yan’s language, his use of unmarked dialogue and intense subjectivity at times evoke the style and language of the American author as well.
Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared in Chinese translation in 1984, has influenced a whole generation of Chinese authors, and is himself a literacy descendant of Faulkner.
Certainly, the stream of literary influence, from Faulkner to Marquez to Mo Yan, does not end in a stagnant pool.
Michael Wood has written that the Latin American authors of “Boom” literature (as magic realism is termed in Spanish and Chinese) “freed themselves from an earnest, wrong-headed realism; but they also, and Garcia Marquez principally among them, since he is by far the best-known in the world at large, freed other writers and readers from other bondages ...”
Chinese writers responded to this model of liberation with eagerness.
Mo Yan speaks of the “shock of recognition” with which he read One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Introduced into his creative equation at a crucial time, magic realism opened new possibilities and lent substance to inclinations already present, but like any good writer Mo Yan draws on those elements of outside influences which suit his purposes, putting them together with elements of his own tradition, such as folksongs and fantastical tales of people with super-human abilities.
The happy consonances between the now familiar techniques of magic realism and Mo Yan’s own style – his intense subjectivity, the poetic quality of his language and the interpenetration of the human, animal and natural worlds in his writings – help make his work particularly accessible to a broader and western audience.
His stories provide ample testimony to the author’s talents and demonstrate why his writing has been described as having “at once a strong modernity and a typically rural Chinese flavour”.
Style and language are innovative: Dialogue markers are dispensed with, blending dialogue, feeling and description into one many-layered fabric whose splendid dense texture is marked by a prolific use of adjectives in long, complex sentences.
Mo’s shimmering, extravagant language is often at odds with the ordinary, even pitiful or repulsive state of the objects and situations depicted, investing them with a kind of back-handed dignity.
The potent colours of nature shine in almost oppressive contrast to the customary drabness of people’s lives.
Sunlight and darkness are palpable; scents and sounds have shape and colour; a rooster dismisses humankind with one contemptuous glance.
Mo Yan left the countryside at the age of twenty to join the people’s liberation Army, but like his protagonist in “Explosions” (1985), he is joined to the land as son, husband and father, and returns in his writing to explore the depths of his alienation, the impossibility of escape, the failures and rare success of the people of Gaomi County.
The action of the story centres on the main character’s (known only as I) insistence that his wife abort her second pregnancy, which the family had hoped to keep from him and from the authorities.
But the main issue is the husband’s struggle to realize his own identity and his right to act independently, breaking the bonds of tradition and an unhappy marriage which bind him.
Themes of emotional and sexual repression, of the limitations placed by society on the human spirit and the difficulties of human relationships recur in the longest story in the collection “The Yellow-haired Baby.”
Here as elsewhere in these stories, Mo Yan draws on both his peasant back ground and his life in the army.
The main character, Sun Tianqiu, is a political instructor in the People’s Liberation Army, who married a local woman for convenience –he needed someone to care for his blind mother- but was unable to develop any feeling or sexual desire for his wife.
Throughout the story, images of freedom and the constraints of “civilization”, of the natural and the unnatural, stand in constant contrast to each other.
Like Sun Tianqiu, Mo Yan’s male protagonists are either physically or emotionally disabled and thus alienated from society to a greater or lesser extent.
His female characters, on the other hand, even those who suffer from physical disability, like Liu Man in “The Amputee”, are often less alienated from nature and more able to express genuine feeling.
Sometimes, like the mother-in-law in “The Yellow-haired Baby” or Liu Man in “The Amputee”, they are able to break through the fetters of tradition, male authority and social expectation, if only temporary.
“The Yellow-haired Baby”, though at times somewhat rambling and digressive, provides a powerful and revealing portrait of the consequences of sexual and emotional repression.
This story was roundly criticized in China, mainly for its sexual content and pessimism. They very harshness of the criticism caused the author to regard it as a personal favourite. The very harshness of the criticism caused the author to regard it as a personal favourite.
“The Old Gun” is the most successful in literacy terms, combining the dense descriptive passages found in the author’s longer works with a well-wrought tale of the inevitability of fate.
“Files” and “The Flying Ship” display the author’s humorous side; the first story is a hilarious look at army life, the other a caustic view of the effects of an airplane crash on the lives of impoverished isolated villagers.
“The Amputee” again draws on Mo Yan’s PLA background in its depiction of a disabled veteran of China’s own Vietnam conflict. Its positive ending is a rare departure for the author.
Any generalization about the richness of mo Yan’s writing in terms of both style and content is a risky endeavour.
Summarizing this or that storyline might lead the reader to the conclusion that the author’s outlook on life is unrelentingly pessimistic. Yet, despite the unsentimental, often bleak, picture of rural life Mo Yan gives us, his talent as a writer and the honesty, humour and sheer exuberance of his writing make his stories a pleasure to read.