Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Mo Yan

The (very) recent US Election campaign has put the world's focus very much on America. This post looks not to the US, but to another major world player, China. Arguably, in the past month China has achieved a massive cultural, political and literary milestone. On October the 11th Mo Yan became the first resident of mainland China to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This award has been a long time coming, Yan has been producing outstanding literature for over 30 years. His style is a hybrid; fusing realism, traditional folk-tales, history and the contemporary. Read one of Yan's books and you become immersed in a hallucinogenic textual universe. Peter Englund, head of the Swedish Academy claimed that 'if you read half a page of Mo Yan you immediately recognise it as him'. Yan has such a unique and engaging style, one which is worthy of an award in itself, and certainly worthy of the praise Englund accords it. 

‘I know I earned the unspoken respect of many of Yama’s underworld attendants, but I also know that Lord Yama was sick and tired of me. So to force me to admit defeat, they subjected me to the most sinister form of torture hell had to offer: they flung me into a vat of boiling oil, in which I tumbled and turned and sizzled like a fried chicken for about an hour. Words cannot do justice to the agony I experienced until an attendant speared me with a trident and, holding me high, carried me up to the palace steps. He was joined by another attendant, one on either side, who screeched like vampire bats as scalding oil dripped from my body onto the Audience Hall steps, where it sputtered and produced puffs of yellow smoke. With care, they deposited me on a stone slab at the foot of the throne, and then bowed deeply.
“Great Lord,” he announced, “he has been fried.”

From Yan’s ‘Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out’ (2008)

In many ways reading Yan recalls a the work of another of my favourite authors, Vladimir Nabokov; both writer's works are enriched by the poly-linguism of their authors, and fully evidence the richness of books which are written by non-English authors or translated from their original language. Yan himself is a firm supporter of Goethe's idea of 'world literature' claiming that 'literature can overcome the boundaries that separates countries and nations.' Yan's work then, is not simply exquisitely written, or darkly humorous; it is a move towards something higher, towards the celebration of literature that transcends politics and is not allied to a particular nation, but is available to all who seek it. So then, Yan's success in winning the Nobel Prize perhaps shouldn't be seen as a victory for China, but a victory for the literary world in general, and a victory for the reading public whose lives will undoubtedly be enriched by exposure to Yan's beautiful and harrowing texts. 

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