Having heard this afternoon that Chinese novelist Mo Yan 莫言 had won the Nobel Prize, I thought that I would track down some of his work to have a quick read. I only know Mo Yan indirectly, through the film Red Sorghum, which was based upon one of his books, and for which he sold the rights for £80. This seemed not very much to go on, so by a bit of judicious rooting around online I managed to dig out a copy of his short story Soaring (翱翔) in both English and Chinese; and having picked my way through the story in the original, and then read it in English, I have to say that I was very impressed. It was an old-fashioned tale of village brutality combined with uncanny, unearthly happenings, the latter very much after the model of Mo Yan’s forebear in his home province of Shandong, the strange and wonderful seventeenth-to-eighteenth century writer Pu Songling. The Nobel Committee called it “hallucinatory realism”, and it seems a fitting name for the genre.
There has, of course, already been a degree of controversy over the prize: Mo Yan, some have claimed, is not political enough. I wonder about this. I wonder what it says about our perhaps impoverished notion of what ‘politics’ means, as well as of what literature is about, and what writers (in particular Chinese writers) do, or should do. In the West, we prefer our Chinese writers and artists, it sometimes seems, to be firebrands who rage against, or pointedly pour scorn upon, the regime in Beijing. It fits a comfortable Western stereotype and, at the same time, makes us feel better about ourselves. Yet whilst there is, no doubt, a great deal to rage about in China, for all this, I would like to make a plea for a broader view of literature and the politics of writing.
Closer to home, I am conscious that, when it comes to writing fiction, I have very little to say, in any direct fashion, about the gang of ideologically driven hoodlums who constitute the current government of the United Kingdom. It is not that, when it comes down to it, I don’t really mind the considerable violence that is being done to many of those things that I think are worthwhile about country in which I live. I do mind. I mind so intensely that sometimes I really don’t know what to do with myself. But at the same time, I am aware that I cannot fully choose my compulsions as a writer. There are many things that can be done to try and make the world in which one lives, or the corner of it in which one lives, a better, kinder and fuller place. There are even perhaps many things that can be done as a writer to make the world a better, kinder and fuller place. Not all of them involve ‘politics’ in the way that the term might be understood by the journalists. As Mo Yan himself said recently at the London Book Fair, ‘Of course I care about politics, and I write about things that I see that I think are wrong – but I also think that the writer should not just be a political activist, a writer should be a writer, first and foremost.’ One can argue about the ‘should’ in this sentence (why not be a political activist first, and a writer second?); but the point is well-made nevertheless.
So, what to make of the Nobel Prize for Mo Yan? I am, at root, sceptical about literary prizes. I believe in a varied and diverse literary ecosystem, and the notion of the ‘best book’ or ‘best writer’ is one that, pushed to its limit, threatens to obscure the fact that different books and different writers do very different things. Literary prizes can be like the stupid playground game of questioning, ‘which is better: a camel or a giraffe? A nightingale or a vulture? Murakami or Mo Yan?’ And, of course, the awarding of prizes, like the writing of books, is always a political act, in the broader sense of the term. But, putting this aside, I’m just pleased to have had my attention drawn to a writer whose strangeness—whose hallucinatory realism, perhaps—may open further doors (as the work of new-found writers often does for a reader) onto the possibilities that literature offers. And—who knows?—perhaps Mo Yan may provide me with new ways of thinking, seeing and acting that help as I struggle with the broader condition of hallucinatory realism in which I feel I am enmeshed, whenever I turn on the news.