by Jaime Grijalba.
Another year has gone by and it’s time for the usual conversation, discussion and usual ranting about the choices made regarding the Nobel prize winners for literature of each year. As many of you may know, or maybe not, I started writing for this site after an email I sent Sam Juliano, telling him that I was interested in doing some book reviews and that I wanted to exercise the use of my english writing habilities (I don’t know if I’m getting better or worse, but at least I’m getting some readers that comment on my pieces), so I took the chance to do it due to the fact that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in 2010 and I had in my house a bunch of his books that I didn’t have the chance to read, so I decided to go ahead, dwelve inside the works of this peruvian writer in the hopes of getting something out of it, specially some explanation about what the fuss was about his literature. So I started reading the books and writing essays and I was doing alright until this year, in which I completely stopped my tracks in my discovery of his written word, because I was going in chronological order and the next book that I have to read called ‘Conversations at the Cathedral’ was lost by my father after he left it in some building and he hasn’t got it back. The book is long and heavy, and it’s really difficult to find it in libraries for me to borrow it. Then came last year, in which we celebrated the new nobel prize winner for literature: Tomas Trasntrömer, a swedish poet that turned out to difficult to read his first works, so any advance on his search (Really, I need the compilation that reunites his first poetry books, can anyone borrow and scan it for me?). And now comes this somewhat known chinese writer: Mo Yan, a name that wasn’t a complete mystery when I heard it this morning in the news (as opposed to the whole mess that was finding out about Tranströmer), as it shouldn’t be to anyone that has some interest in chinese cinema, specially the films of Zhang Yimou. He wrote the novel ‘Red Sorghum’, in which the film of the same name is based, so I wasn’t completely lost about it, but… why him?
Not to demean the choice or anything but, I’ve heard many times that the Swedish Academy is one hard nut to crack and predict, and it’s even more frustrating when you take into account the politics that come out of it. They don’t choose poetry writers too often (specially not two consecutive years), so a prize for the overdue chilean poet Nicanor Parra wasn’t going to make it (he’s getting old, like really old, can you guys hurry up with the prize already?). And now with this prize, another hope vanishes for at least a good bunch of years: Haruki Murakami. I know that Murakami is japanese, and Mo Yan is chinese, but the studious and literature geeks don’t care, the academy would never ever choose Murakami as the Nobel prize winner in, at least, the next three years, because the overstuffed critics would yell out: ‘What? Two ASIANS? Too soon! Too soon!’, so there goes my personal hope for me to cover his books in this splendid site soon. But hey, the same critics are yelling out at this choice as well, since Gao Xinjian won the same prize in 2000, but there are some things that must be said: first, I think that 12 years is enough, second, he is not a real chinese writer, and I’m not talking about the government condemnation to the prize, but because he actually lives in France and publishes his books in french, so we can say that Mo Yan is the first legitimate chinese Nobel prize winner, and even if his name means ‘Don’t Speak’, something that we could assume as some kind of protest against the government… well, he has had some fights and arguments with the stablishment (who wouldn’t in such a represive state?), but nothing too serious to be forbidden to attend the ceremony and give his speech. Now, still, the question lingers… why Mo Yan? I haven’t read any of his books… it is the purpose of this space to give me the time to explore and look around for the reasons for the Nobel prize in his work, but what can we say now, in the meantime?
Well, first of all I can say that finding a bibliography has been a pain in the arse. The internet is not a reliable source, specially when we are talking about chinese writers, when sometimes not many of them are translated and the information about what and when he published his first compilation of short stories, or if he has more, or if he has any other kind of fiction out there is scarce. Not even the Nobel Prize page can make up for it, even if it gives the most complete list of his work to date, it still is prephaced by the ominous title: ‘A selection of major works in Chinese’, so that means that his entire ouvre, at this moment, is completely hard to get, specially since it doesn’t seem to be translated at all. So, apart from that problem that may be solved sometime soon (after all, the attention of the world will be on him, and a formal and complete bibliography is bound to appear), what can we say about Mo Yan? Well, we can read what the academy said about him: it was awarded to Mo Yan “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”. His real name is Guan Moye and he has been compared to William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, as he has been adopted into the magical realism of those authors. He was a peasant whose education was cut short in fifth grade as he was sent to work at farms and other Party works during the failure that was the Cultural Revolution (that had nothing cultural about it), but as he won confidence in the military education he found the time and the strenght to study literature in the university. He has been known for having certain complacency towards the regime of the Communist Party in China, but at the same time that hasn’t prevented him from being critical of certain issues regarding its society and overall political structure. Those elements are specially visible in his work whenever he goes back to the countryside to set his characters in a landscape filled with poverty and bad moments for the people. There was a clear influence of the discourse of Mao in the literature in China, where the building of a Republic was in need to be told as a great historical epic of great proportions, Mo Yan was one of the first writers to oppose to that kind of storytelling and aiming for a bit of personal history above official history, the one of the families as the big process happens, he has almost every time delivered his story through the process of the memory of one of the characters and how they lived the experience, giving us an almost avant garde experience of reading, including the use of actual letters between him and another writer.
Other element that is quite aparent in his narrative is the main characters that are the most apart from being the classic “red” person that you may want to find that would try to achieve the best characteristics of the Communist Party, but quite the opposite, they are characters with deep personal flaws, fetishes and deformities, but as they are loosers (as many characters of chinese literature recently may have been) these are actually not afraid of showing their bad aspects, but at some times proud of them, they are characters filled with vitality, desire (sexual or not) and with a preponderance given to the issue of the body above all. To end it all, you must say that Mo Yan’s most interesting facet is how the term and concept of ‘history’ is always at play, either as a background or as a playground where you can change the rules and the facts that you know, it is the history of China that appears in the words, or it is a subversion of what we know about chinese history, it is a complicated read and I’m looking forward to it. I hope that I can find his first short story collection soon enough (it has been published in French, so I’m not sure), but if anyone wishes to help me, the collection is called ‘Touming de hongluobo’ or translated roughly as ‘The Crystal Carrot’ (it has three novellas or short stories, one called as the title of the book, one called ‘Dry River’ and the last one called ‘White Dogs and the Swings’).
I’d like to thank María Montt that helped me in getting information about the bibliography and the themes of Mo Yan, and for handing me out the essay ‘The Literary World of Mo Yan’ by David Der-Wei Wang, where I took most of the analytical parts of it. Hope you enjoyed this overview, let’s hope for a fast encounter with this books.
Next: ‘Touming de hongluobo’ a.k.a. ‘The Crystal Carrot and Other Stories’