Sunday, 16 December 2012

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize in Literature: is it a Disaster?

I had frequently spotted a novel of the Chinese author Mo Yan in the local library. It was titled Big Breasts, Wide Hips. The front cover showed the close up of a Chinese woman in her twenties (so impossible to tell if she had big breasts and wide hips). The back cover described Mo Yan as arguably China’s most important contemporary literary voice.

I thought about borrowing the novel, but couldn’t make up my mind. On the one hand I am always game for reading fiction coming out of other cultures; and if it is written by arguably the most important contemporary literary voice of that culture, I say to myself, ‘Couldn’t be better.’ On the other hand, Big Breasts, Wide Hips was described as an epic novel, and it is in the nature of epic novels to be very long. The back-cover also informed that the novel was about the survival of a rural Chinese family, of a woman born in 1900 to be precise, spanning several decades—from the end of Qing dynasty to post-Mao years. That concerned me. Earlier this year I read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, which is also an epic novel. The novel (reviewed on this blog) written in original English failed to enthuse me. I was not sure that I was in a fit enough condition to get through another epic Chinese novel about rural Chinese (albeit written by a bona fide Chinese rather than an honorary Chinese like Buck).

In the end I did not borrow the book. ‘I’ll read the novel some other time,’ I said to myself. ‘Who is Mo Yan, anyway? Never heard of him,’ I said to myself at some other time. ‘Life is too short to read books of authors you don’t know about,’ I reasoned. ‘Better stick to what you know and like. I will read William Boyd and Jonathan Coe.’

What helped me to make up my mind was the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded to Mo Yan in October this year. I realised that Mo Yan was definitely worth reading. If he was good enough to win the Nobel, he was good enough for me. One must expand one’s horizons; you can’t spend your whole life reading J.K. Rowling and Louis de Bernieres. And rural Chinese culture at the turn of the twentieth century is as good a culture as any to start getting to know.

I still haven’t managed to read Big Breasts Wide Hips, though, because, suddenly, the book has disappeared from the library; its popularity has soared. I asked the librarian (a woman in her thirties with a mean, pinched face and an advanced bosom) whether any novels of Mo Yan were available for borrowing. She banged keys on her computer, stared at the screen for a few seconds and then informed me (with ill-concealed glee) that all the novels of Mo Yan were ‘out’. Moreover there were in excess of 50 claims already on them. I could put a ‘claim’ too; it would cost me 50 pence, and I would get to read the book sometime in the spring of 2013.

‘How many copies have you got?’ I asked.

‘Of what?’

‘Of Mo Yan’s novels.’

‘Which one?’

‘“Big Breasts and Wide Hips”.’

‘I am not at a liberty to tell you that.’

‘What about his other novels?’

‘Which one?’

‘Does it matter? Are you at a liberty to give me the required information?’

‘I am afraid not.’

‘You obviously haven’t ordered enough copies. It’s ridiculous that I have to wait for three months even after giving you money to put my claim.’

In response the woman crossed her arms under her breasts. ‘It’s 50 p,’ she spat out. I looked back at her, marvelling at the contrast between her face—unpleasant, rebarbative, unwelcoming, unaccommodating, arid as the Sahara, and the breasts—generous, inviting, and hospitable. I turned away. I know when I am defeated.

‘Perhaps I shall read Mo Yan after a few months,’ I said to myself. ‘I can always read Wole Soyinka in the meanwhile,’ I told myself.

Then I came across a short article in the Guardian (where else?) in which the 2009 Nobel Laureate Herta Muller declared herself to be heartily sick that Yo Man . . . I mean Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel.
Awarding the Nobel to Mo Yan was a ‘catastrophe’, according to Muller. The choice of Mo Yan was deeply upsetting, Muller said. (What next? Nobel Peace Prize for Dr Bashar al-Assad?)

I was puzzled when I read the (admittedly sketchy) Guardian story. ‘Giving the Nobel for Mo Yan is nothing short of a catastrophe,’ says Herta Muller. Really?  The 2005 Tsunami was a catastrophe. The attack on the World Trade Centre was a catastrophe. The Iraq invasion was an even bigger catastrophe. But can the awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to a Chinese author known for his depiction of Chinese rural life characterized by (according to the Nobel committee) ‘hallucinatory realism’, and described in Time magazine as ‘one of the most famous, oft banned and widely pirated of Chinese writers’ be termed as a catastrophe?  Does this act of the Nobel committee qualify as a great calamity?

Why did Herta Muller think it is a catastrophe anyway? According to the article in the Guardian, she felt like crying when she learnt that Mo Yan had won the Nobel. That’s serious. When a grown woman, a Nobel Laureate, too, gets on the verge of crying, it cannot be ignored. Notice has to be taken.

Herta Muller, it would appear, has no observation or critique of Mo Yan’s prose, his writing style, or the subjects on which he writes. Is he a mediocre writer, undeserving of the Nobel? He might be, or he might not be; Muller is silent on the matter. She is exercised about Mo Yan’s Nobel because he is too close to the establishment. He is in good books of the Chinese Communist party. That is not acceptable. Why is it not acceptable? What have Mo Yan’s political leanings got to do with his writing? It’s like saying Tiger Woods should not receive all those millions of pound worth prizes because he is a man of loose moral character, and wants sex repeatedly and vigorously, and not just with his wife.

But apparently, when it comes to the Nobel Prize in Literature, it matters; at least it matters to Herta Muller. She is cheesed off because Mo Yan hand-copied Mao Tse Tung’s Green Book on the 70th anniversary of the speech. She is browned off because he (Mo Yan) did not come out openly in support of Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and who is currently in Jail in China for activities that the Chinese government thinks are anything but peaceful. After winning his Nobel Prize in Literature Mo Yan said that he hoped that Liu Xiaobo would achieve his freedom soon. But that was not good enough for Muller; it was too little too late. (What should Mo Yan have done? Come out openly in support of Xiaobo and hope to be his cell-mate? That was hardly going to happen, not from the man who hand-copied Mao’s Green book.)

It seems to me that the Nobel committee is in a very difficult position vis a vis Chinese authors. If they award the prize to a dissident, the Chinese authorities foam at the mouth; if they award it to someone who is acceptable to the establishment, Herta Muller goes nuts.

In 2000, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Gao Xingjian, an exiled Chinese writer (by choice, I  should add) in France since 1988, in recognition of his ‘oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity’; not because of his opposition to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Chinese government which had banned all of Xingjian’s works reacted with anger to the award, and refused to acknowledge him as Chinese. (Technically they were probably right. At the time of his Nobel Prize Xingjian was a French citizen; and I guess his Chinese citizenship was revoked).

We do not know the reaction of Muller, herself nine years away from her own Nobel Prize in 2000, when Xingjian, known (if at all) in his native country for his absurdist dramas (rather than novels of which he has written two or three), was presented the award; but one can safely assume that she heartily approved, perhaps because she agreed with the Nobel committee that Xingjian’s oeuvre had ‘universal validity’ and offered ‘bitter insights’, but more likely because of her admiration of his opposition to (what she no doubt views as) a totalitarian regime. For the same reason she is dismayed that Mo Yan, an establishment man, has been awarded the Nobel.

The Nobel Committee finds itself in this position because it has a history of awarding the Nobel for reasons other than purely literary. Why should it be? I read somewhere that according to instructions left by Alfred Nobel, the person adjudged to have been worthy of the literary award should have ‘produced the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. You have got to admit that that is pretty ambiguous (provided the English translation of the Swedish is correct). What could be the ‘ideal’ direction? Who knows? Judging by some of the winners of the Nobel Prize in the past the committee probably takes into account the ideology espoused by the author, the social or political message conveyed through his literary work or some such things. It is not enough to have produced literary work of artistic merit and technical ability (sorry Jeffrey Archer), the literary work needs to propagate an acceptable message; or, to be precise, a message that is acceptable to the Nobel committee, or, to be even more precise (or generalized depending on how you see these things), to the liberal European (or Scandinavian) sensibilities.

Take Muller’s Nobel Prize in 2009. She was awarded the Nobel because she ‘depicted the landscape of the dispossessed with the concentration of poetry and frankness of prose’. Her (German) prose was compared to that of Kafka.

Muller, belonging to the German speaking minority in the Banat region of Romania, has repeatedly depicted the plight of the Germans post Second World War in the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. When she lived in Romania, Muller was a member of a group consisting of German-speaking writers which supported freedom of speech. Some of Muller’s novels were censored when they were first published in Romania. Muller has repeatedly claimed that she was persecuted by Securitate, Ceausescu’s secret service. According to her, agents of Securitate bugged her house, hounded her from her job, interrogated her, turned her friends against her, threatened to kill her, and generally terrorized her over the years. They visited her house when she was not at home and left obvious evidence that they had been there in her absence. How did she know? When she returned she often found chairs’ positions changed, pictures taken off walls, and butts of cigarettes (which she did not smoke) in the ashtray. Her requests to be allowed to immigrate to Germany were denied more than once before she was finally allowed to leave the country in 1987. The persecution, according to Muller, continued even after she left Romania and began living in Berlin. (Don’t you think that a tad strange? If the Communists were so keen to want to know what Muller got up to, why did they allow her to leave the country in the first place?) Did the persecution end, finally, after the Communist rule in Romania came to an end and Ceausescu met his own bloody end in front of a firing squad on the Christmas day in 1989 (as he sang The Intertionale)? No sir, it didn’t. The dreaded Securiate, Muller claims, remains intact, though, of course, it has changed its name. The post-Communist Romanian secret service, largely consisting of former Securiate agents, continues to persecute the 2009 Nobel Laureate, says the Nobel Laureate.

Is Muller paranoid? Sounds like she is. But, as the Will Smith character in The Enemy of the State (directed by the late Tony Scott who met his own violent end earlier this year), said, you are not paranoid when they are really after you. Or, putting it another way, even paranoids can have enemies. The question is: is Muller’s story representative of systematic persecution or suggestive of a systematized delusion?

There are at least two people who think Muller is mad. A secret agent from Securiate called Radu Tinu (who admitted to having spied on Muller and bugged her house), and Muller herself. (Can you really be psychotic if you know you are psychotic?)

Radu Tinu gave an interview, given after Muller was awarded the Nobel prize and used the opportunity to inform the world (in case it had missed anything) how she was persecuted in Romania. In the interview Radu claimed that Muller was a sufferer of psychosis and had lost contact with external reality. According to Radu, Muller’s house was bugged as a ‘one off incident’, not repeatedly as she has been claiming (so it’s alright, then); she was not interrogated as often as she says; and (this sounds most damning) she was sacked from her job not for refusing to cooperate with Securiate, but for smoking in the classroom and repeatedly ignoring the warning!. Tinu concluded by saying that in his considered opinion Muller was treated with ‘kid-gloves’, really, because [note this] ‘she was always surrounded by the German secret service[!]’

In an interview given in 2010 (more than 20 years after Ceausescu’s death) Muller, the daughter of an alcoholic German labourer who volunteered for Waffen-SS (and was in the same tank division as Gunter Grass, Muller’s compatriot and fellow Nobel Laureate), Muller said, ‘Ceausescu was mad; he made half of Romania mad; I am mad because of him.’

If one has read Anna Funder’s (immensely readable) Stasiland and Timothy Garton-Ash’s (not as readable, but still interesting) The File, one would have little trouble is concluding that there must be at least some truth in what Muller is saying.

Tinu, the ex-Seuriate agent, calls Muller as suffering from a mental delusion; but the examples he gives of her ‘psychosis’ seem like exaggerations by Muller (as per Tinu) of the extent of her persecution. If that is the case, if Muller has been overegging the pudding all these years, then has she been doing it deliberately to raise her profile as a crusader against repression (which resulted in the ultimate acknowledgement in the form of Nobel, in 2009)? Or, is it the case that Muller, of paranoid disposition, perhaps, and prone to see tigers behind chairs (when none exist) has been scarred irredeemably by the minor persecution (according to Tinu), which someone with more robust personality would have been able to take in her stride? (In a 2010 interview Muller said that when she applied to immigrate, the regime took 18 months to process the application. The immigration date given her was 29 February 1987, which, of course, did not exist. Muller saw this as yet another example of Communist persecution of her; it might suggest that the regime had a sense of humour, albeit macabre. She was allowed to immigrate the same year).

There is always the possibility that everything Muller is saying is true; that she was repeatedly persecuted and the persecution continued even after she left Romania and well beyond the end of the Ceausescu regime. Who might you consider, between Tinu and Muller, a person of (what I imagine will be described in the British courts of law) ‘good character’, of ‘integrity’? One is a Nobel Laureate, the other a service agent who could no sooner be converted into an honest man than a bullock cart into a Rolls Royce. I know whom I’d believe.

It should be noted that Muller’s Nobel elicited a hostile reaction in Romania, the country of Muller’s birth, and not just from crafty secret service agents with inherent talent for duplicity. A prominent journalist remarked that Muller’s reputation was based solely on her opposition to the Ceausescu regime rather than any real literary talent. ‘The Nobel Peace Prize would have suited her better than the Nobel Prize in Literature,’ the journalist remarked (I imagine, wryly).

It seems as though Muller’s anger against the Ceausescu regime is personal. She was born into the German speaking minority, which, one imagines, after the Second World War, was not the most popular of communities in Romania; and has personal experience of persecution (she says). When she finally immigrated to Germany, it must have seemed like homecoming.

Once you have an understanding of Muller’s background you can begin to appreciate (even if not agree with) what appears to be, on the surface, an intemperate, petulant outburst. Muller clearly sees herself as a victim of a repressive totalitarian regime, and sees it as a duty of every writer of integrity to oppose such regimes in the world. In her eyes Mo Yan has failed the ultimate test: he has not stood up against what Muller believes to be a tyrannical, antidemocratic regime (and democracy is the best way of governance, right?) Had Mo Yan spent some time in jail agitating about—I don’t know—political freedom, or, like Gao Xingjian, escaped to a European country, Muller would have approved. Instead he hand-copied Mao’s Green Book (although I read somewhere that early in his career some of his books were banned in China as they were deemed to be too vulgar).

When it comes to her literary oeuvre it seems as though Muller, like the 2002 Nobel Laureate, Imre Kerstz (another resident of Berlin), is a one-track pony (although the two ponies canter along different tracks). The only novel of Muller I have read (reviewed on this blog) left me feeling severely underwhelmed. (Indeed, I have become hesitant about reading Kafka, if his prose—as I read in the article on Muller—is like Muller’s.)

I shall read Mo Yan next year. I won’t be surprised if I like his work far more than Muller’s (even though Muller believes that he has clearly made the wrong choice of not aligning as an outspoken critic of and dissident against the Chinese government).