Mushfique Ahmed

A prize for literature or political reality?

November 15, 2012

4a9a2ca5-9caf-439c-a144-174840478d28-300x180This year’s Nobel Award in Literature, no doubt, points to a shift for the Swedish Academy. Was it a change of heart? May be; or perhaps, they decided to go off the script for a realistic change. The Academy, which lunges at any chance to mix literature with politics, could be mischievous at times. They, after all, gave away accolades to Pasternak, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn; and likes of Akhmatova and Mayakovski were overlooked. Let’s just say they are too much into their ideology. Besides, to the sceptics, it is a fraternity of old, white, European males that annually passes judgments on other cultures with deliberations shrouded in Vatican style secrecy.

Surrealist as it may sound today, the first writer on China whom the Swedish Academy called to the podium was an American – Pearl Buck for her peasant epics; a non-event for the Chinese people then, as it does not ring any bell now. So when, after taking more than half a century amassing wisdom, the Academy could only manage to pick up a neo-European Chinese emigre, a French citizen – Gao Xingjian; it was again whimper of a news. Although no one argues that Gao, an acclaimed avant-garde novelist, was unworthy of the honour; the perception that Gao was culturally more Western than Chinese had made the difference. And when Gao was declared Nobel Lauriat in 2000, the Chinese people did not own him. Moreover, the Gao episode reinforced the Chinese belief that they (and in extension other nations of the world) are surrounded by Western Culture’s soft power. Then there is the effusive Norwegian cousin of the Academy — the democracy and human right guru and dispenser of the Nobel Peace Prize; records show that peace prizes to Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo conveyed intimidating political message. The Chinese thought that the West had gotten into a habit of handing out ‘papal bulls’ from high pulpit.

In 1989, the Norwegian Parliament irked the Chinese with their peace prize to Dalai Lama. It was a clear rebuke to China after the Tiananmen crackdown. The Soviet Union had already started collapsing; and that was the year Berlin Wall came down. The rejuvenated West was in a high. The American behemoth of the ensuing mono-polar world was in a mood to spread the gospel of Freedom. Barely a year into the Tiananmen Crackdown, China had it coming. Still, the Han Chinese felt insulted. The award to the Lama hurt the nationalist sentiment of even the most liberal Chinese, which in turn eroded the purpose and resolve for the rightful Tiananmen cause.

Those were the times when following the tumult of the Post-Mao era China had just been opening up with Deng at the helm. But time has changed. And the time blessed China with a material success unheard of in the history of the world. In current growth and rise, China has consciously been lowballing to avoid umbrage to the West. The prevailing view of the West toward China has been not unfriendly either.

DV1324937In time, in a direct run-in with the Chinese, the Oslo Consistory pronounced Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned human rights activist, as the Peace Lauriat of 2010. Known for his off-the-scale pro-West stance Liu, who wrote in support of Bush’s War on Iraq praising it as the “best examples of how war should be conducted in a modern civilization”, thought of the “provocateur” Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once stated in an interview: “Modernization means whole-sale Westernization, choosing a human life is choosing Western way of life”. “Difference between Western and Chinese governing system is humane vs. in-humane, there’s no middle ground… Westernization is not a choice of a nation, but a choice for the human race”. The Chinese thought the ungracious West had just pulled a rude prank on them. They had had enough; called it a national insult, lost their cool and showed anger. They erased the Peace Prize pages from the web. Still, there was no let up of the Chinese fury. They gave Oslo a lesson denying visas to their officials. Further, believe me you – they saw to it that Norwegian Salmon shipment got rotten before cleared by the customs.

But on this 11 October, when the news of 2012 Literature Prize to another Chinese citizen, Mo Yan broke, all that seemed forgotten and China went into a cheerful celebration. The state-run CCTV interrupted its prime-time program to announce the news; the communist party mouthpiece People’s Daily declared, “It is a new starting point”. Nobel to Mo was hailed as well-deserving honour for China’s most prolific, popular, and widely respected novelist. There were three million microblogs in a few hours of the Nobel announcement; — the jubilation looked for no advert, no razzmatazz. He certainly was a mainstream pick. For this year’s Literature Honour, no one can accuse the Academy of pulling out an obscure shocker on a befuddled world.

Born to a peasant family in 1955, Mo Yan, a school dropout at 12, had been a cowherd and factory worker during the tumult of Cultural Revolution before joining the army in 1976. During his army years he began to study literature. Mo commenced writing while he was still a soldier, in 1981. Three years later, he was given a teaching position at the Department of Literature in the PLA Academy of Art and Literature. His first novel was Falling Rain on a Spring Night, published in 1981.

The real man – Guan Moye used the pen name, Mo Yan (‘Don’t Speak’ in Chinese) an oblique reference to the Cultural Revolution. To date Mo Yan has published more than a dozen novels and novellas, and numerous short stories and essays; majority of which have been translated into English. French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese translations of Mo Yan are also available. Foreign language readers best know him for his 1986 novel Red Sorghum via director Zhang Yimou’s global blockbuster movie of it in the following year.

20121012103721752Admittedly, I have only read about Mo Yan. He is an eminently worthy writer who, “through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspective,” the Nobel citation that comes with the award said, “has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faukner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.”

Reviewers appreciated his vigorous and primal fusion of pastoral tales, historical cataclysm and intense imagination; and even claimed to have found magic realism – the Nobel cliché. Announcing honour to Mo Yan, the Academy praised his “hallucinatory realism,” which “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”

He has been portrayed as one of the ‘root seeking’ products who emerged in the post-Mao Literary Thaw during China’s Reform and Opening Up period.  He is seen as both a rebel and a conformist who knows the art of timing and compromise and is smart enough to know, as his English translator Howard Goldblatt noted, that prevailing rules are flexible enough to write whatever “You want” sans 3Ts: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. Over the past 25 years, Mo Yan has been writing viciously effervescent tales of rural China that spike his earthy realism with fantasy and illusion.

For his Life and Death Wearing Me out Mo Yan has also been compared with Gunter Grass of The Tin Drum. Goldblatt sees Dickensian touch of big, bold, elaborate imagery with moral core in his works. Former US Congressman and Chair of National Endowments for the Humanity, Jim Leach has put Mo Yan side by side with Kafka and Joseph Heller. From the titles like The Garlic Ballads, Explosions and Other Stories, The Republic of Wine, Big Breast and Wide Hips, etc. alone, reviewers think, — a sense of Mo’s work emerges. The forthcoming one also has fitting enticing one: Pow!

On Mo’s award news in Washing Post, Steven Moore, pointing to his high-pitched flamboyant style, described him as the well-published wild man of Chinese fiction. Some critics found Mo’s works bloody and violent with tense plot containing copious sex. From all accounts — his is a daring and provocative concoction of traditional Chinese and avant-garde literatures.

This is the first Nobel Literature award that China can openly celebrate. But not everyone is celebrating. There are party poopers too. Some are even angry. They include exiled dissident like Wei Jingsheng, the activist and Yu Jui, the friend of imprisoned Liu Xiaobo’s as well as the virtuoso, Ai Weiwei. Last summer the dissident writers took aim at Mo Yan for joining a group of authors who transcribe by hand a 1942 speech by Mao Zedong. They say they are upset because he is a card-wielding communist and the Vice-Chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers’ Association. The prospect of Chinese dissidence loosing traction, and the middle-of-the-road majority Chinese view turning into the ‘in thing’ at their expense may be ‘what’s eating’ them.

No one should fail to see the wave of passion and excitement that coursed China following Mo’s award – the long- awaited ‘Chinese cultural high point’. Ah, at last! The Swedish Academy this time around has succeeded to ‘level with’ the Chinese mainstream about the Nobel Literature prize. Mo’s award will surely boost Chinese national psyche, which had long been putting up a sense of frustration that its cultural accomplishments, in the eyes of the West, were not at par. To their satisfaction, they now see, as Moore in Washington Post put it, “the Nobel Prize go to a citizen of a country that was producing great novels long before Western novelists got in the game”. China’s long complain, ‘why you be dissin’ me?’ to the West will assuredly subside now.

One can weigh Mo’s award against the 1930 Sinclair Lewis’ that heralded the ascension of US on the global stage, just as the arrival of China now. The attitude toward China, of course, will not change with a single event just this; we will see a lot of twist and turns in the evolving Sino-Western dialogue. Over the past three decades, the world witnessed the economic ascendancy of China. With the US having passed its peak, China before long may naturally begin to feel its prowess. It may cease to be a humble player in the world scene with time. The soft China’s cuddly soft panda may someday just grow fangs.

Besides, the confident view that the runway economic growth will, as a rule, be trailed by liberal democratic evolution in China, albeit a hold-up of a few years – is fading fast. Need I say that the time may have already arrived for China to see pretensions in the US’ ‘avowed intentions to being the only honest and capable global broker’. If the recent Chinese ‘mode of dealings’ – from climatic change, North Korea, currency valuation to the latest Diaoyu-Senkaku – is anything to go by, she may prove to be more elusive; and the US would find her like a balloon that, when pushed in one place, come out somewhere else.

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Mushfique Ahmed is a professor of Department of Geology and Mining, University of Rajshahi.

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8 Responses to “ A prize for literature or political reality? ”

  1. kalpana on November 22, 2012 at 12:40 am

    Exceptional writing with knowledge and ability-rare bird in Bangladesh.

  2. Lipi on November 16, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    What criterions does the Nobel committee considers when deciding on literature prize?

  3. Tahir on November 16, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    This was such a good write-up. I just loved it. Thank you so much Mushfique Ahmed. Hope to read more of your writings. Just a suggestion, a shorter piece would probably have been crisper.

  4. Milton on November 16, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Is there a Bangla translation of any of Mo Yan’s books? Does anyone know?

  5. Kaiko on November 16, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Nobel Prize has indeed become politicized. I still can’t believe that Barack Obama got a Peace Prize. I think Obama has immense potential but are we going to give away a prize based on potential? Really? I mean what were the Nobel committee thinking?

  6. Bashirul Huq on November 16, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    I had no idea about the rotten Salmon shipment. That was a hilarious anecdote. Thank you so much for this lovely article.

  7. Anwar Azim on November 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    An excellent piece. A very good weekend read I must say. Light yet powerful writing. Thank you.

  8. Mahmudul Hossain on November 15, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Very well conceived and well articulated write-up. Very well informed also. The rules of the game well explored and exposed. Didn’t we remember Tolstoy was missing from the list of Novel laureates? But did he care or do we?

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