Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nobel Prize for Literature: 2012 Mo Yan

So Chinese writer Mo Yan has won the Nobel Prize for literature. A good thing. I'm not terribly familiar with his work though I have read Red Sorghum and enjoyed it (many years ago, it was....) There are definitely other Chinese writers whose work I like better, but Mo Yan probably has the widest appeal (Wang Anyi is too Shanghai-centric, Wang Shuo is too weird, Yan Lianke is still a bit obscure, Yu Hua is too...meh). Mo Yan is definitely a comfortable choice.

I do wish I could be in China and hear the reaction of the Chinese people about the win. When Gao Xingjian won in 2000 (I was living in China at the time), it was treated with a shrug ("He's not really Chinese" I heard which is absolutely idiotic) and the government didn't report on it widely at all (except to say that it was some anti-China statement on the part of the reactionary Nobel Prize Committee or some such nonsense). Also, he was slightly on the obscure side perhaps when he won (living in France, better known in most circles as a playwright than a novelist). Though he is often criticized for being on the misogynistic side, I really admire the work of Gao. It's mystical, dreamlike, dense, and really moving in parts. Soul Mountain is beautiful.

At any rate, the Chinese don't have a great relationship with the Nobel committee: not only because of Gao Xingjian; Lu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 which caused a minor tantrum in those sacred halls of Chinese government and is still reverberating as we speak.

The movie's good, too
There is no denying that Mo Yan is Chinese. But it'll be interesting to see how his win is treated in the Chinese press (i.e., how the government wants the story to be shaped). He has a tenuous relationship with the government and (sorry to say) in China as a general rule, people tend to go along with whatever way the government shapes an international news story like this one, particularly when it has to do with China. Of course, intellectuals and artists can see through the haze of government subterfuge but the average Chinese can't or won't (with almost no access to other points of view, it's no wonder).

(It's fascinating to me that you can ask almost all Chinese people and they will say the government lies about everything, that one shouldn't believe the government, etc., but then they buy all the spoon fed propaganda they're given about so much. All that said, North Americans are only slightly more aware of the world and if it's not the government shaping every opinion here, it's whatever news channel one watches).

It also can't be denied that this is a bit of mud in your eye on the part of the Nobel Committee: if the Chinese government criticizes them, they have it in just as much for the Chinese government. In that sense, Mo Yan is a very political choice. But politics shouldn't detract from the fact that he is, essentially, a very good writer that the world should know better.

And I am glad that a non-Western writer has won, the Nobel doesn't often do well on this score (though generally I like the writers they select). To me it's the best thing about the Nobel prize: a slew of works will suddenly be translated into English and available in book stores (consider Herta Mueller, for example, and how accessible she has become since her win), and the diversity of writers (despite the fact that they are generally Westerners) is very appealing.

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