This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan will raise eyebrows. Not because Mo is unworthy of the honor, but Nobel has a controversial history. Such controversies have fallen into three categories — whether an awardee was really worthy of exceptional honor ; second, why certain writers, so manifestly worthy were still overlooked; and, third, of course, the nationality of the writer.
The first category makes you feel an agnostic (for a while) — ie., until Nobel spots someone exciting again. The second category makes you feel annoyed — Anna Akhmatova, Yevgeny Yevtushenkov and Andrey Voznesensky were overlooked, while Joseph Brodsky “won”. (Alas, Vladimir Mayakovsky took his life at 37 before Nobel could even approach him). The third category makes an odd little curiosity shop of figures from the Cold War era.
Where does Mo figure? Frankly, I have only read about him, and he seems an avant-garde novelist like Gao Xingjian (2000) whose Soul Mountain
I read twice (and may read again), although he is far from the emigre writer that Gao was (who was rejected by the Chinese establishment and went into exile). From all accounts
, Mo is eminently worthy. Gao experimented heavily with narrative modes, while Mo, it seems, sought to reconnect with Chinese culture and traditions.
Being a great acolyte of magical realism in fiction, I’m dying to read Mo. But, it’s the nationality, Stupid! What matters most in Mo’s case is that he’s CHINESE, and the stunning thing is that he belongs to “mainstream Chinese society”
, as Global Times subtly put it. That brings up a question: Is there a political message?
The Global Times euphorically compares today with 1930 when Sinclair Lewis won Nobel — insofar as the Nobel is apparently recognizing China’s rise just as it heralded the arrival of America on the global stage as a great power eighty two years ago.
To my mind, it seems more like Mikhail Sholokhov
(1965) all over again. Just ruminate over those times, as tumultuous as today’s China. The “Khrushchev Thaw” engineered an irreversible transformation of the Soviet economy, politics, society.
People being unbound in arts, literature, music; Soviet athletes collecting Olympic medals by the truckloads; highly symbolic removal of Josef Stalin’s body from the Lenin Mausoleum; Soviet Union’s opening up to the “international community”; peaceful co-existence theory; advent of consumerism; the individual kitchen for families. (Of course, all that eventually weakened the Soviet Communist Party.)
And then came Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964. A year later, when big questions were hanging in the air as to which way the winds would turn, which road the Soviet Union would take — Sinyavsky-Daniel trial (with its traces of an authoritarian ideology struggling to be reborn) took place in 1965 — and that was when Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel (whose best-known Tikhy Don gives a heart-rending portrayal of the heroic and tragic struggle for independence by the Cossacks of the Don region against the Bolsheviks).
Sholokhov was one better than Mo. He was a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU, a member of the Supreme Soviet, Academician, Hero of Socialist Labour — and winner of the Stalin Prize. But at the end of the day, he too was an enigmatic figure — archetypal and rebel.
Sholokhov wrote letters to Stalin complaining about the appalling consequences of the collectivization program of the late 1920s and early 1930s. And he accompanied Khrushchev on the historic visit to the United States in 1959. He symbolized the “Khrushchev Thaw”. Yet, he denounced Alexander Solzhenitsyn.