With a pen name that means ‘don’t speak’, it was apt that Guan Moye, aka Mo Yan, had earlier responded to a query about his chances of winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature with, “I have no opinion.”
But the 57-year-old Chinese author, known outside China for his 1987 novel Hong Gaoliang Jiazu (Red Sorghum), which depicts the turbulence of 20th century China through five interweaving stories that deal with bandit culture, the Japanese occupation and brutal rural life, has beaten the bookies’ favourite, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, to become the latest Nobel literature laureate.
Mo Yan’s writings are an amalgam of fantasy and realism, and he cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez and major Chinese writer Lu Xun as influences. His works, such as the 2006 Shengsi Pilao (Life and Death Is Wearing Me Out) and the 2009 Wa (Frog), use black humour to describe everyday life in the young People’s Republic and the consequences of China’s one-child policy, respectively.
Mo Yan is the first Chinese writer since Gao Xingjian, who won the literature Nobel in 2000 as a French national, to win the award. Some critics have claimed his rise to his closeness to the ‘establishment’. Fellow Chinese writer Yefu told the state-controlled China Daily last week “the Nobel will not go to a writer who sings the praises of authoritarianism”.
Signs of Mo Yan's closeness to the 'establishment' that are cited include his copying and publishing of a Mao Zedong speech in a commemorative book that, according to China Daily, "largely set the parameters for China's art and literature in the ensuing decades".
Mo Yan is not the usual 'unknown' Nobel winner. He is a household name in China. His 1996 novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, was first banned over concerns that the Republican side in the Chinese civil war is shown to "get off too gently". Subsequently, it went on to become a national bestseller.
"A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature. But we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street. But we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions," Mo Yan had told an audience at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair.
Three years later, publishers will be snapping up rights at the ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair to bring Mo Yan's works to a readership far beyond the opinionated walls of China.