Mo Yan

Media frenzy as Chinese author tipped for Nobel

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 10:25pm

Critically acclaimed for his work and faulted for his tolerance of government censors, Chinese author Mo Yan has suddenly found himself at the centre of a media frenzy over his prospects of winning the Nobel Prize.

The mainland media has gone into overdrive touting the possibly that Mo Yan could become the first Chinese national to win the prestigious litreature award after odd-makers picked him a leading candidate to be named by the Nobel Prize Committee on Wednesday.

The online betting site Badbroke’s put the odds of Mo Yan’s winning at 8-1, just behind Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and Irish author and playwright William Trevor.

But rather than bask in the limelight, the 57-year-old author has spent recent days dodging questions for fear of being accused of courting the West. “Once I talked about it, I would be attacked, as many have been criticising Chinese writers for the Nobel Prize anxiety,” Mo Yan was once quoted as saying.

Born to a rural family in Gaomi , Shandong province, Mo Yan began writing while in the army in 1981 and adopted his pen name, meaning “don’t speak”. He rose to international fame with his Red Sorghum: A Novel of China in 1987, which was made into a film of the same name by world-renowned director Zhang Yimou.

Mo Yan has made no secret of the influence that previous Nobel Prize winners, such as William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have had on his magical realism and the complex narratives he weaves about rural life and family feuds.

Drawing largely upon his upbringing in Gaomi, Mo has written dozens of short stories and novels, including Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, which was awarded the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature in 2009, and Frog, which received the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize last year.

Mo Yan was once so prolific that he was said to have written Life and Death, a vivid, 500,000-word epic spanning five decades of the country’s economic transformation, in just 43 days.

But his ability to thrive under a strict censorship regime, which has led to the muzzling or imprisonment of some of his peers, has exposed him to intense criticism. Some supporters worry that could undercut his candidacy for the Nobel Prize.

Unlike others, Mo Yan has chosen to co-operate with authorities, something underscored by the government’s sponsorship of a symposium in his hometown dedicated to his novel Frog last September.

A vice-chairman of the controversial, government-backed Chinese Writers’ Association, Mo Yan withdrew from the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009 to protest the attendance of Chinese dissident writers, including Dai Qing and Bei Ling.

He came under fire again in June for joining 100 mainland writers and artists who commemorated Mao Zedong’s “1942 Yanan Talks” – a set of doctrines that shaped litreature under early Communist Party rule – by hand-copying the transcript.

Mo Yan’s attitude toward living as a writer on the mainland may be compared to the outlook of a character called the Fourth Aunt from his novel, The Garlic Ballads. “Whatever it is, don’t let it get you down,” she says.

David Der-wei Wang, a professor of Chinese litreature at Harvard University, said writers were not required to be school teachers or human rights fighters and said Mo Yan decisions about censorship should not damage his status as a “world-class writer”.

“Mo Yan is an honest writer, while he knows how to survive the coercive censorship in the PRC,” Wang said. He noted Mo Yan’s 1992 Republic of Wine, which depicts an absurd, gluttonous and promiscuous dystopia and offers a prophecy for the inception of a post-socialism China after Mao and Deng Xiaoping .

“The quality of his oeuvre to date is outstanding,” Wang said.

Many of Mo Yan’s works have been translated into English, mostly by his gifted and dedicated translator, Howard Goldblatt.

Luan Meijian, a Fudan University professor who two years ago predicted a Nobel Prize for Mo Yan, said the author’s increased international exposure amid China’s economic rise has set the stage for his recognition.

However, Wang said the media frenzy over the potential for a Nobel Prize winner from the mainland shows that Chinese readers and writers have yet to overcome their anxiety about “representing China” on an international stage.

“If they are truly confident of their own national litreature, they need not worry about the judgment of the Nobel Prize Committee,” Wang said.