This is the first Nobel literature award that China can openly celebrate. The only previous Chinese writer to receive the literature prize was Gao Xingjian, but he had moved to France by the time he won in 2000. The Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo have won Nobel Peace Prizes, but both those awards infuriated Chinese officials and strained relations between Beijing and Norway.
Over the past 25 years, Mo Yan (born in 1955 as Guan Moye) has been writing brutally vibrant stories about rural life in China that flout official Communist Party ideology and celebrate individualism. He also flouts literary conformity, spiking his earthy realism with fantasy and hallucination. Luckily for American readers, the majority of his flamboyant novels are available in translation, and a new one is forthcoming with the appealing title “Pow!”
Like many in his generation, Mo Yan experienced a tough upbringing: Born on a farm, he worked in a factory before joining the army, where he began writing. After that, he became a teacher in the People’s Liberation Army’s Cultural Academy and published his first novel in the early 1980s. His second novel, “Red Sorghum” (1986), was adapted for film by director Zhang Yimou.
Mo Yan’s American translator, Howard Goldblatt, describes the Chinese writer as a quiet and thoughtful autodidact. “He’s very socially aware, and he’s got a strong social conscience,” Goldblatt said by phone from his home in Indiana. “He’s very interested in Chinese society, in its good and bad forms. Controversy rages around him, but it no longer bothers him. He must have so much going on in his head that he doesn’t have time to deal with the outside world.
“Like everyone else writing in China, he knows the rules,” Gold-blatt said, “and the rules are flexible enough that he can write about anything so long as he doesn’t touch the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen.”
After publishing translations of five novels by Mo Yan, with two more coming soon, Goldblatt describes the writer’s work as Dickensian. “He’s bawdy when he wants to be. Big and bold, lots of adjectives, and long sentences. The visuality is incredible. When he describes a scene, he does it with every tool in his box. He turns things on their head and makes them be something they could never be in real life. In Mo Yan’s hands, even the most horrific scenes have a great beauty to them.”
A sense of Mo Yan’s work emerges from the titles alone: “The Garlic Ballads,” “Explosions and Other Stories,” “The Republic of Wine,” “Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh,” and “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” (all published in the 1990s).
His latest novel, and one of his best to be published in English translation, is “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.” It covers the second half of the 20th century, including the ideological insanity of Mao Zedong’s policies and the unimaginable horrors he inflicted on his people. Mo Yan boldly made use of the Buddhist notion of reincarnation to structure this imaginative novel. It begins on Jan. 1, 1950, in hell, where Lord Yama, king of the underworld, is examining a benevolent landowner named Ximen Nao, who was executed two years earlier (like thousands of landowners) so that his land could be redistributed to peasants. Frustrated that Ximen will not admit any guilt, Yama punishes him by sending him back to his village in the form of a donkey. Ximen remains in that form for the next 10 years, witnessing the Land Reform Movement and the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61) that killed 30 million Chinese (and an unrecorded number of animals).
It’s a grimly entertaining overview of recent Chinese history. As a “wise German shepherd” summarizes it, “People in the 1950s were innocent, in the 1960s they were fanatics, in the 1970s they were afraid of their own shadows, in the 1980s they carefully weighed people’s words and actions, and in the 1990s they were simply evil.” In contrast to the sheeplike “people,” brave individuals emerge as the true heroes of the novel. Aside from the animal reincarnations of Ximen Nao, these include Lan Lian for refusing to give in to communal pressure, and his son Lan Jiafang, who defies convention by abandoning his legal wife (from an arranged marriage) for a younger woman he deeply loves, ruining himself in the process. The most colorful individual is the novelist himself, who pops in and out of the story, usually to the annoyance of the other characters.
To Western readers, “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” and Mo Yan’s other novels may recall the magic realism of recent Latin American fiction, but in truth he is reincarnating classic Chinese tales. In the opening chapter, the narrator refers to the protagonists of Wu Chengen’s fantastic novel, “The Journey to the West” (circa 1570), which likewise features animal characters, reincarnation and an infernal descent to Lord Yama. The name Ximen may be taken from that of Ximen Qing, the philandering protagonist of China’s second-greatest novel, “The Plum in the Golden Vase” (circa 1600), and several later novels used reincarnation as a device, most memorably in China’s greatest novel, Cao Xueqin’s “Story of the Stone” (circa 1760).
Mo Yan’s mash-up of traditional Chinese literature and avant-garde techniques is daring and provocative, and it’s satisfying to see the Nobel Prize go to a citizen of a country that was producing great novels long before Western novelists got in the game.
Moore is a literary critic; the second volume of his study, “The Novel: An Alternative History,” will be published next year.
Keith Richburg and Ron Charles contributed to this report.