Friday, October 19, 2012

And the Nobel goes to…

I know I’m late on the uptake and all, but I did want to say a little something about the Chinese novelist Mo Yan winning the Nuo Bei Er.

It’s come out of the blue for most people. Folks were putting money on Haruki Murakami, that Japanese wunderkind of mildly surrealist, disaffected hipster fiction.

And while I would’ve been perfectly happy if any Asian writer had won the prize, I’m actually rather happy that Mo Yan won out.

Y’see, back in ‘05, I did my Comp Lit BA thesis on Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan, so I had to do a bunch of reading up on both of ‘em – ingesting what books I could, either in their original language or in translation.

So I’ve a bunch of the laureate’s works: Red Sorghum; The Republic of Wine; The GarlicBallads; Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh; Big Breasts and Wide Hips (not my favourite, and the translation corrupted the plot somewhat), and the one I focused on in my thesis, 41 Bombs. (As yet untranslated, to my knowledge.)

Reason I chose him was because his work’s been specifically compared to Gabo’s before: he too uses techniques of magical realism, attributing his inspiration directly to the Colombian master – though it’s not slavish imitation by any means; coming across One Hundred Years of Solitude was merely a licence to go ahead and be true to his own folk tradition of tall tale-telling, same way as Gabo was liberated by Kafka.

Mo Yan’s most famous work is Red Sorghum, which was made into the groundbreaking Chinese New Wave film of the same title by Zhang Yimou. The ‘90s were actually the heyday for Chinese novelists, between perestroika and the invasion of TV and blockbuster film. So he’s actually been on the Nobel watchlist for some two decades. Give him the 8 million krona; he’s waited long enough.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m glad he beat Murakami. I mean, look at the Japanese guy’s works: they explore the world of middle-class jazz aficionado Gen X-ers, revisiting so many old tropes that you can actually play Bingo with his books.

(Disclaimer: I’ve only read Sputnik Sweetheart and Dance Dance Dance in full, both of which I enjoyed.)

Mo Yan, on the other hand, is the son of Shandong farmers. He writes in peasant Mandarin (this is why I was able to read his works), and is enjoyed by a broad base of proletariat countrymen as well as by East Asian Studies majors in Stockholm.

He’s come a long way since the nostalgia of Red Sorghum. He’s documented the crazy collectivist/industrial/capitalist transformations of his nation, from famine to gross excess, utilizing a dazzling range of realisms and surrealisms to get past the Communist Party’s censors – god, you should check out the Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness at the end of Republic of Wine. He changes, just as China does.

So basically, we’ve got a populist peasant with a penchant for experimentation, versus an ageing hipcat who’s stuck in a rut. Also, China’s never had a Nobel for lit before. Who’re you gonna pick? (Also helps that Mo Yan's using his leverage to say nice things about Liu Xiaobo.)

And sure, sure, Murakami’s populist too. Give it to him another year. He'll live.

By the way, I've set up my poll for my Japan book on the right. Any Harukists who're mad at me can sentence me to finishing 1Q84.

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