Deserving honour

The Swedish Academy has the habit of springing surprises in the award of the Nobel Prize, especially in the case of the prizes for literature and peace. This may be because objective appraisal may be difficult in assessing contributions in these two areas.

It is more difficult  with literature and that may be why the prize has often become controversial. European writers have more often won the prize than those from other continents and this has led to charges of bias. There are many writing in non-European languages, who are yet to receive the honour. But this year’s prize, awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, has been widely acclaimed, because the writer is considered well deserving and because it has recognised a writer from China which has a great literary tradition. 

Though Gao Xingjian, who was born in China, won the prize in 2000, he is a French citizen. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen, born and living in China, to receive the prize in its entire history. Though there are major writers in China, few are recognised outside the country. One reason is that some are not widely translated. It is also true that during the Maoist period creative writing was inhibited. Mo Yan stands out from most other writers because he has not cared to toe the official line. His works have been banned in China but he has not been persecuted or reviled by the state. Mo Yan is a pen name which means ‘don’t speak,’ and it gives an indication of his writing persona. The writer’s position in relation to the establishment – sympathetic, neutral or hostile—may not have been a consideration in the award of the prize.

The Nobel citation said that Mo’s writing merged “folk tales, history and the contemporary with hallucinatory realism.” As a writer he chronicled the last hundred years of China – the wars, the revolution and history’s other major and minor turns -- as they shaped individual and social lives. His novels show how history suddenly quickened for an ancient civilisation and how hopes and disappointments and defeats and victories form part of the mosaic of life. There is a streak of satire running through the entire work. He has been criticised as being clever and too subtle, but no one would say he is not Nobel class.

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