Beijing’s Nobel complex

What does Mo Yan’s fiction say about modern China?

Written by New York Times | Published:October 17, 2012 3:55 am

Literary prizes,wrote Kingsley Amis,are “all right if you win them.” China’s political establishment takes a far less relaxed view of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since the country reintegrated into the global community after the death of Mao,its government has long craved a literary Nobel for a Chinese citizen living,working and thriving in China as proof that the People’s Republic has arrived as a modern world power. China’s longstanding Nobel envy has turned the prize into a symbol of collective achievement,rather than of individual creativity.

In theory,the awarding on Thursday of the prize to Mo Yan — Communist Party member and vice chairman of the government’s official Writers’ Association — should have put an end to China’s Nobel complex. An elated People’s Daily and Li Changchun,the country’s propaganda supremo,hastened to congratulate Mo.

The contrast with reactions to previous ethnically Chinese Nobel winners was marked. When the exiled author Gao Xingjian was awarded the literature prize in 2000,Beijing denounced the Nobel Committee’s “political purposes.” After the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo,the foreign ministry described the decision as “blasphemy.”

Despite official jubilation,Mo’s prize has generated political controversy. Dissident voices in China have complained that the award was an “insult to humanity and to literature,” in Ai Weiwei’s words,on account of the writer’s compromises with the political establishment and silence over the incarceration of Liu Xiaobo. Critics brought up an episode from earlier this year when Mo joined a group of authors in hand-copying Mao’s 1942 Talks at Yan’an — the ur-text of Chinese socialist realism — for a special commemorative edition.

Mo’s Chinese attackers — those who live with the daily reality of authoritarian censorship — have some grounds for criticism. In recent years,Mo has sought to dodge political controversy. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009,when China was the “market focus,” he allowed himself to serve as an anodyne literary figurehead for the official Chinese delegation. Along with the rest of his group,he dutifully boycotted events that included exiled Chinese writers.

But it would be intellectually lazy for distant Western observers of this situation to dismiss Mo as a literary stooge,or to assume that his several historical novels set in post-1949 China offer an officially sanitised view of China and its recent past. Since the publication of The Garlic Ballads in the late-1980s,Mo’s fiction has sought to lay bare the brutality,greed and corruption that has flourished under Communist rule.

Mo’s novels might not be technically perfect or broach contemporary China’s most sensitive taboos. But the grotesquerie of his narratives expresses an acerbic vision of the People’s Republic and,by logical extension,of its political architects. Although his criticism of the status quo since 1949 is rarely direct,it is implicit and ubiquitous.

Rather than condemning Mo for his political accommodations,we should expend our energies on fathoming what he and his fiction tell us about China today. Contemporary Chinese literature is,for most part,not a Manichaean struggle between spineless appeasers of the regime and heroic,dissident resisters. Rather,a spectrum of voices strives to operate within a realm of political possibility that is at times surprisingly broad; some periodically push at its edges. Mo is a writer who plays a public game with authority while maintaining a creative space that enables him to present an indirect challenge to this same authority.

JULIA LOVELL is an author,literary translator and lecturer in modern Chinese history at Birkbeck College,University of London

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