Essay on Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan
In the early 1980s, I became friends with a student from the People’s Republic of China who was in the United States to do graduate work in English. He was roughly a decade older than me by the calendar, but a lifetime older in experience. He started school during the Cultural Revolution, when the curriculum had been “Mao in the morning, math in the afternoon.” Possibly it was the other way around, but that was the combination. As an adolescent, he was, like everyone of his generation, “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry.” What he mainly learned, it sounded like, was not to idealize the peasants too much. “Some of them were really mean,” he said, without elaborating.
For there was only just so much he was willing to discuss. There was nothing gloomy about him, but he seemed to be making up for lost time. When we met, he was about halfway through reading every word Thoreau had ever put on paper -- an enterprise he pursued with admirable discipline, although (beginning at some point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) diminishing enthusiasm. One day he seemed very excited by something, and it wasn’t Transcendentalism. He had been reading about some novels that were stirring up discussion back home. One of them was about some chapter in Chinese military history, which the author had narrated with more realism than certain critics thought healthy.
Others were defending the new spirit in the arts -- taking courage, presumably, from a recent official resolution on the country’s history that seemed to justify criticism and re-evaluation. My friend was on their side, as much as anyone could be while toiling in a grad student carrel for 80 hours a week. The sparks flying over theory in our seminar interested me a lot more than they did him. Even so, I knew that the stakes were a lot higher in the debates he was following. Everything about American literary culture was decidedly small beans by comparison.
Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan, a novelist who began publishing in the early 1980s. It’s possible -- if not likely -- that he was one of the authors my friend was so excited by, almost 30 years ago. The early- to mid-1980s are now sometimes called a golden age or renaissance of Chinese literature. Mo Yan and my friend were born within two or three years of each other, at most, and the novelist describes throwing himself into writing fiction with what sounds like the absolute concentration that his peer was bringing to 19th-century American literature.
In China, Mo Yan's publisher has announced plans to bring out his collected works in 16 volumes. We’ll have a seventh volume of his fiction in English when the University of Oklahoma Press brings out his novel Sandalwood Death in January. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award; the response within China is an understandable mixture of pride and irritation.
An article from the official news agency Xinhua quotes Chinese academics who identify a number of authors who ought to have won it in decades past. They exhibit a healthy disregard for the Swedish Academy as arbiter of an author’s world-class significance. (The Swedish committee’s choices for the literature award have at times been as dubious as its omissions are criminal.) Xinhua cites the argument of Zhang Hongsheng (dean of the literature department of the Communication University of China) that Mo Yan’s blend of “hallucinatory realism with folk tales … is more appealing to the taste of Western readers than the styles adopted by many of his peers.”
That may be, although Mo Yan has also enjoyed another great advantage over his colleagues that we’ll consider shortly. And whatever the reasons for his appeal abroad – beginning with the international acclaim for Red Sorghum (1987), a film based on his early novel of the same title – the award has only enhanced Mo Yan's reputation at home. After the announcement last week, his most recent novel jumped from 560th to 14th place on China’s Amazon site, and his work is selling out in stores there.
The only book by Mo Yan that I’ve read so far is Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of short fiction, while it’s his novels that are supposed to reveal the author in all his epic sweep. Even so, Mo Yan’s stories do corroborate Professor Zhang’s point about the Nobel laureate’s sensibility. While Mo Yan denies being influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the grounds for comparison are obvious. But it is -- to rework one of Deng Xiaoping’s expressions -- “ ’magical realism’ with Chinese characteristics”: the folkloric elements and supernatural events unfold in a landscape marked by real and recognizable political upheavals.
Mo Yan’s vision has a touch of the grotesque. There are vivid sensual descriptions (smells and textures defined so clearly that they seem real from half a globe away) and surreal twists, sometimes involving elements of visceral horror. A character in one story learns that his mother’s cataracts might improve if treated with the extract of an animal’s gall bladder – though he’s also told that one taken from a human body is much more effective, according to tradition. He is able to perform his filial duty thanks to the state execution of enemies of the people. But the result is something from an O. Henry ending.
But foreign influences or resonances only count for so much. Mo Yan’s tale seems to echo the work of Lu Xun -- perhaps the most canonical of 20th-century Chinese writers -- whose story “A Madman’s Diary” has a similar mixture of dark humor and grim irony. Or so it seemed to me, taking what amounted to a shot in the dark, given that my knowledge of modern Chinese literature is mainly limited to Lu Xun’s prose and Mao Zedong’s poetry. That guess seems confirmed by Shelley W. Chan’s A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan (2010), which its publisher, Cambria Press, calls “the most comprehensive exposition of Mo Yan’s fiction in any language.” It is certainly the only book-length study in English, bringing together enough biographical and historical background to anchor its treatment of Mo Yan’s formal experiments and thematic preoccupations.
She notes that Mo Yan has often been called an experimental or avant-garde writer (even a postmodernist: in one novel, a character named “Mo Yan” hears from a half-crazy Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies who seeks help in publishing his short stories about certain horrific matters) but that he is not usually understood as a satirist. But in keeping with the outlook of satire at its most savage, Mo Yan creates a world in which all the absurd, cruel, or vicious parts of everyday life that we try to downplay are magnified and intensified until they become inescapable.The effect can elicit laughter or disgust, or both. It is a natural means to expressing social criticism, and Mo Yan's use of it calls to mind Jonathan Swift as well as Lu Xun.
Mo Yan combines this satirical outlook with one of “nostalgia for the past,” Chan writes, “complicated by his strong and sometimes scornful criticism of tradition.” Nostalgia is also complicated by the record of carnage left by foreign invasion, civil war, famine, and ideological campaigns. He is left “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present.”
The Nobel laureate must embody everything that worried the conservative Chinese critics whose articles my friend described in the early 1980s. No doubt there are still readers in China who turn away from his work with a sense that it represents the spiritual contamination created by foreign influences. But being “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present” is the default mode for modern consciousness once sufficiently overwhelmed by available information about how things are. If Mo Yan is emerging as a figure in world literature, that may be part of it.
But as mentioned earlier, Mo Yan enjoys one benefit that has certainly helped him find a transational audience: the dedication of Howard Goldblatt, professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-211, who has translated a great deal of contemporary Chinese fiction, including a number of Mo Yan’s novels.
A dozen years ago, World Literature Today (an indispensable journal published by the University of Oklahoma Press) published a special issue on Mo Yan that included the transcript of a talk he had given while visiting the United States. “Friends of mine who know both Chinese and English have told me that [Goldblatt’s] translations are on a par with my originals,” he said. “But I prefer to think they've made my novels better.” There may be more to that statement than exaggerated appreciation: an article in Translation Review points out that Goldblatt has, in consultation with the author, sometimes tightened up his novels with judicious editing, which Mo Yan himself has then incorporated into later editions of his work in China. When Goldblatt's translation of Sandalwood Death appears early next year, I hope we can run an interview in this column.
Until then, there is an off-chance that someone out there may know the whereabouts of my friend of three decades back. At last report, he had become deeply involved in support for the student movement in China, which meant that he lost his stipend after the Tiananmen Square massacre while also being unable to return to China. There seems to be no trace of him in the U.S. after 1989. It seems best for me not to give his name, but it would be great to get back in touch. Someone said that he translated "Civil Disobedience," and I'm hoping that's true.