Chinese author Mo Yan wins Nobel Prize in literature

Nobel Laureate Mo Yan gives readers outside China an idea of what it is like to be Chinese, while people inside China gain a sense of history, says one distinguished translator.

In this file photo, Chinese writer Mo Yan listens during an interview in Beijing, China. Mo was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature during a ceremony in Sweden on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of China’s most popular and widely translated novelists, but he has drawn criticism for his cozy relations with the government.

Mr. Mo was given the prize for novels in which, “with hallucinatory realism [he] merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary,” in the words of Peter Englund, Secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the prize, speaking in Stockholm.

Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye but who writes under the pen name “Mo Yan,” meaning “don’t speak,” has written a number of sprawling novels tackling major themes of modern Chinese history such as land reform and enforced birth control. His work betrays the literary influences of William Faulkner and magical realist Gabriel García Márquez

“He absorbed a lot of foreign literature and Chinese traditions and came up with a new direction for Chinese literary language,” says Eric Abrahamsen, a literary translator in Beijing.

Mo first attracted international attention in 1987 with his novel “Red Sorghum” which was later made into a film by director Zhang Yimou. He has since won almost all the prizes available to Chinese writers, but his artistic achievements have sometimes been overshadowed by his readiness to acquiesce to the wishes of a government that persecutes writers of whom it disapproves.

 Mo is a vice chairman of the government-linked China Writers’ Association, for example, and refused to join a panel at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair because two exiled dissident Chinese authors were slated to speak at the event.

Though Mo had been widely tipped to win this year’s prize for literature, his political stance – or rather his lack of one – had been thought to be an obstacle.

“The Nobel committee has historically awarded prizes to critics of despotic regimes,” points out Howard Goldblatt, Mo’s English translator and one of his most fervent champions in the West.

Two years ago Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, currently serving a 12 year prison sentence for incitement to subversion, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1989 the Dalai Lama, one of Beijing’s bêtes noires, won the same prize.

“Congratulations to Mo Yan,” wrote one micro-blogger on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform. “You have made history by being the first Chinese winner that the Chinese government has not criticized the Nobel committee for honoring.”

The award will “inevitably be seen as a prize for China,” says Mr. Abrahamsen. “You couldn’t pick a more establishment author to honor.”

Mr. Goldblatt, one of the most distinguished translators of contemporary Chinese novels into English, says he was first attracted to Mo’s work because “it was so innovative, moving back and forth in time. I was drawn to the language, the depth of characterization and to the whole sense of life in his work.”

In novels such as “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” and “Frog,” Mo “is good at giving readers outside China an idea of what it is like to be Chinese, and people inside China a sense of connection to their history,” says Goldblatt.

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