“An Epic Tale of Comic Realism”: a reader’s words on Life & Death are Wearing Me Out.
The best of Chinese literature doesn’t just give insight into the Chinese condition, but that of all humanity. Mo Yan’s specialty is the uniquely local spectrum through which he plays out the tragicomedy of life as in this case with a rebellion in a small town and its cast of eclectic characters.
“From the perspective of literature and art, it’s undoubtedly a huge loss. My attitude is, forget the translators when you write. Care not about whether they feel happy to translate. The real talented translators aren’t afraid of difficulties,” he says.
[not that I know who translated that passage]
In “White Happy Doves,” Nikil Saval reviews Change, Pow, and Sandalwood Death for the London Review of Books:
When the English translation of Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) was published in 2004, it was seen by some critics as his bid for global literary prestige. It hit all the right notes: it was a historical saga of modern China featuring a proliferation of stories, it was unceasingly violent and nasty, and it came near to puncturing Party myths … the Washington Post praised Mo Yan for having ‘spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism’. Here was a liberal voice in repressive China. ‘The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics,’ he concluded, ‘might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.’
Last year the Academy did indeed give Mo Yan the prize. But this time the Nobel’s literature-politics mix came out all wrong. Rather than taking it as a targeted affront, as it had with the Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo two years earlier, the Chinese Communist Party was ecstatic. Li Changchun, minister of propaganda, wrote to congratulate Mo Yan on a victory that ‘reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China’. Mo Yan’s dissident reputation in the West, it turned out, was false. He was an established figure in Chinese literary officialdom. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1979. He was vice chairman of the China Writers’ Association. He had participated in a public ceremony in which he copied out several Chinese characters from Mao’s Zhdanovite ‘Talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art’, a text which declared the subservience of literature to the class struggle. And in Stockholm before receiving the prize, Mo Yan spoke up in favour of censorship: it was, he said, a bit like airport security. The cadres were already moving swiftly to turn his ancestral village into a literary theme park.
Brendan O’Kane, interviewed by Jeffrey Wasserstrom for LA Review of Books:
Mo Yan didn’t send Liu Xiaobo to jail, and there is absolutely nothing he could say or do, up to and including getting the words “FREE LIU XIAOBO” tattooed on his bald pate, that would do one bit of good for Liu Xiaobo or anyone else in China. (This is especially clear given the Chinese government’s continued persecution of Liu’s brother in law Liu Hui, and the ongoing extrajudicial house arrest of Liu’s wife Liu Xia: the authorities are impervious to moral argument, and they have no shame.) Mo is a deputy chairman of the China Writers’ Association, which is to say that he has slightly less power, in actual terms, than your average deputy chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. Meanwhile, as much as we might wish otherwise, moral/political courage and literary merit are not the same thing — if writing bad poetry were a criminal offense, Liu Xiaobo would never see daylight again. So I wrote that post on Rectified.name in hopes of getting people to disentangle the two. Once you do that, and once you actually read Mo Yan’s books, I think you find that he’s a much sharper writer than he’s been given credit for. His books don’t make any kind of overt criticisms of the system — perhaps because he’s overly cautious; perhaps because he’s just not much interested in lifting his gaze from the village level — but they are all, in one way or another, about the human suffering created, perpetuated, and intensified by that system.