Mo Yan, a writer from the Chinese countryside with a lurching, sharply whimsical narrative voice that might be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk, has won the Nobel Prize. This news was greeted with some outrage around the world, because Mo Yan is not a Chinese dissident like Liu Xiabo but rather a friendly presence within the Chinese establishment, He has flatly refused to speak out on behalf of dissidents like Liu Xiabo, and recently declared that literary censorship can serve a valid purpose. Nobel laureate has Herta Mueller called the choice of Mo Yan “a catastrophe”, and yesterday Salman Rushdie called him a “patsy” of the Chinese government, which remains oppressive to its own citizens as well as long-suffering Tibet. The blog Moby Lives has also taken a few funny shots.
I don’t have much sympathy for the government of China, since I’ve really never stopped reeling from the several books I’ve read about the long massacre known as the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s masterwork, a manufactured famine that killed more millions of people between 1958 and 1961 than any of the nearly countless other holocausts of the 20th Century. The immensity of recent Chinese history is so overwhelming, in fact, that I’m sure I can’t understand it in any meaningful way. Mo Yan was born in 1955, and suffered as a young child with his family through the notorious famine.
The great recurring topic of Mo Yan’s historical fiction, though, is not the famine or the later Cultural Revolution but an earlier holocaust that took place before he was born: the vicious Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II. This is Mo Yan’s primary subject, though he has also written about the famine and later Maoist and post-Maoist cataclysms. Mo Yan’s pride in China and his refusal to play into Western ideas about Chinese history has clearly dented his popularity in my side of the planet. But when I read his sharp, acidic, furious prose, I sense that we can learn more by reading Mo Yan than by rejecting him, even though we may strongly reject his political stance.
I’m reading Mo’s Red Sorghum now, and I just watched the very impressive film adaptation of the novel. The film’s tone and scope reminds me of Akira Kurosowa, while Mo’s intense prose reminds me a bit of Yukio Mishima — and, now that I think about it, I’ve never felt I really understood the cultural context of Akira Kurosowa or Yukio Mishima either.
Should we judge a writer based on political stance? I feel alienated and offended by the explicit or implicit political stances of many popular English-speaking authors like Martin Amis, Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy. These authors’ political stances must be even more controversial in numerous other corners of the world that are less Anglophone-phile, and readers around the world might misunderstand the subtle shadings of novels by Amis, Roth and McCarthy just as we are unable to understand many subtle shadings in Mo Yan. We westerners don’t need to look all the way to China to find walls of intercultural incomprehension; there are plenty of walls in our own society.
Do we even understand Mo Yan’s cultural references well enough to know what his political stance is all? I don’t think we do. His sharp words seem to cut in multiple directions at all times, and he writes more vividly of personal relationships than of national issues. The title of Red Sorghum refers to a bloodied wheat field after a massacre, but it also refers obliquely to a sexual dalliance that earlier took place in the same wheat field.
Do we really understand Mo Yan’s standing in his own country? He is apparently very popular with Chinese readers, but we don’t know if his relationship with the Chinese government is a comfortable or uncomfortable one. It can’t be too comfortable; his novels don’t sugarcoat his society’s problems at all.
Finally, since irony is so dominant in Mo’s narrative style, shouldn’t we grant him a presumption of irony when, say, he defends censorship, or shows up to deliver his Nobel lecture wearing a full-monty Mao jacket? He seems to have a taste for provocation, but provocative minds are not often doctrinaire minds.
One thing’s for sure: Mo Yan can deliver a hell of a Nobel Prize lecture. He responded both obliquely and directly to his recent international critics with his autobiographical words, as in this section near the end of the speech:
The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:
For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these.
Even though I would prefer to say nothing, since it is something I must do on this occasion, let me just say this:
I am a storyteller, so I am going to tell you some stories.
When I was a third-grade student in the 1960s, my school organized a field trip to an exhibit of suffering, where, under the direction of our teacher, we cried bitter tears. I let my tears stay on my cheeks for the benefit of our teacher, and watched as some of my classmates spat in their hands and rubbed it on their faces as pretend tears. I saw one student among all those wailing children – some real, some phony – whose face was dry and who remained silent without covering his face with his hands. He just looked at us, eyes wide open in an expression of surprise or confusion. After the visit I reported him to the teacher, and he was given a disciplinary warning. Years later, when I expressed my remorse over informing on the boy, the teacher said that at least ten students had done what I did. The boy himself had died a decade or more earlier, and my conscience was deeply troubled when I thought of him. But I learned something important from this incident, and that is: When everyone around you is crying, you deserve to be allowed not to cry, and when the tears are all for show, your right not to cry is greater still.
It’s not my place to explain or defend the Nobel committee’s choice in honoring Mo Yan, but I do know he’s a powerful and clever writer, and I’m going to keep reading his books and trying to understand him better.