Mo Yan Wins the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature

In case you’re just getting up and haven’t heard the news, Mo Yan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 was awarded to Mo Yan “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Admittedly, I’ve never read any of Mo Yan’s books in full, but I’ve been interested in him since seeing him speak with his translator, Howard Goldblatt, at the MLA conference a few years back. Paul Yamazaki of City Lights was there as well, and highly recommended a few of his books, including Red Sorghum, his first novel.

He does have a number of titles available in English translation, including:

Red Sorghum

Spanning three generations, this novel of family and myth is told through a series of flashbacks that depict events of staggering horror set against a landscape of gemlike beauty, as the Chinese battle both Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s

The Garlic Ballads

The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government has encouraged them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as simple as they believed. Warehouses fill up, taxes skyrocket, and government officials maltreat even those who have traveled for days to sell their harvest. A surplus on the garlic market ensues, and the farmers must watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields. Families are destroyed by the random imprisonment of young and old for supposed crimes against the state.

The Republic of Wine: A Novel

In this hypnotic epic novel, Mo Yan, the most critically acclaimed Chinese writer of this generation, takes us on a journey to a conjured province of contemporary China known as the Republic of Wine—a corrupt and hallucinatory world filled with superstitions, gargantuan appetites, and surrealistic events. When rumors reach the authorities that strange and excessive gourmandise is being practiced in the city of Liquorland (so named for the staggering amount of alcohol produced and consumed there), veteran special investigator Ding Gou’er is dispatched from the capital to discover the truth. His mission begins at the Mount Lou Coal Mine, where he encounters the prime suspect—Deputy Head Diamond Jin, legendary for his capacity to hold his liquor. During the ensuing drinking duel at a banquet served in Ding’s honor, the investigator loses all sense of reality, and can no longer tell whether the roast suckling served is of the animal or human variety. When he finally wakes up from his stupor, he has still found no answers to his rapidly mounting questions. Worse yet, he soon finds that his trusty gun is missing.

Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh

In these stories he writes of those who suffer, physically and spiritually, under its yoke: the newly unemployed factory worker who hits upon an ingenious financial opportunity; two former lovers revisiting their passion fleetingly before returning to their spouses; young couples willing to pay for a place to share their love in private; the abandoned baby brought home by a soldier to his unsympathetic wife; the impoverished child who must subsist on a diet of iron and steel; the young bride willing to go to any length to escape an odious, arranged marriage. Never didactic, Mo’s fiction ranges from tragedy to wicked satire, rage to whimsy, magical fable to harsh realism, from impassioned pleas on behalf of struggling workers to paeans to romantic love.

Big Breasts & Wide Hips

In a country where patriarchal favoritism and the primacy of sons survived multiple revolutions and an ideological earthquake, this epic novel is first and foremost about women, with the female body serving as the book’s central metaphor. The protagonist, Mother, is born in 1900 and married at seventeen into the Shangguan family. She has nine children, only one of whom is a boy—the narrator of the book. A spoiled and ineffectual child, he stands in stark contrast to his eight strong and forceful female siblings.

Mother, a survivor, is the quintessential strong woman who risks her life to save several of her children and grandchildren. The writing is picturesque, bawdy, shocking, and imaginative. The structure draws on the essentials of classical Chinese formalism and injects them with extraordinarily raw and surprising prose. Each of the seven chapters represents a different time period, from the end of the Qing dynasty up through the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao years. Now in a beautifully bound collectors edition, this stunning novel is Mo Yan’s searing vision of twentieth-century China.

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Today’s most revered, feared, and controversial Chinese novelist offers a tour de force in which the real, the absurd, the comical, and the tragic are blended into a fascinating read. The hero—or antihero—of Mo Yan’s new novel is Ximen Nao, a landowner known for his benevolence to his peasants. His story is a deliriously unique journey and absolutely riveting tale that reveals the author’s love of a homeland beset by ills inevitable, political, and traditional.


In Change, Mo Yan—China’s foremost novelist—personalizes the political and social changes in his country over the past few decades in a novella disguised as autobiography (or vice-versa). Unlike most historical narratives from China, which are pegged to political events, Change is a representative of “people’s history,” a bottom-up rather than top-down view of a country in flux. By moving back and forth in time and focusing on small events and everyday people, Yan breathes life into history by describing the effects of larger-than-life events on the average citizen.

And Seagull Books—one of the coolest indie presses in the world—is bringing out his next book, Pow! in January:

A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But in this tale of sharp hatchets, bad water, and a rusty WWII mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the novels of dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz(!), or Jakov Lind(!!), Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.

In this bizarre romp through the Chinese countryside, the author treats us to a cornucopia of cooked animal flesh—ostrich, camel, donkey, dog, as well as the more common varieties. As his dual narratives merge and feather into one another, each informing and illuminating the other, Yan probes the character and lifestyle of modern China. Displaying his many talents, as fabulist, storyteller, scatologist, master of allusion and cliché, and more, Pow! carries the reader along quickly, hungrily, and giddily, up until its surprising dénouement.

Although these descriptions (aside from Pow!, which has Jeff Waxman written all over that jacket copy) seem pretty sobering, my impression—based in part on this Granta interview and hearing him read and reading a few other things online—is that his books are somewhat playful, and filled with food and sex and some non-PC things. He’s run into trouble getting his books published in China (who hasn’t?), and my sense of things is that this is an interesting and good choice for the award—and someone who western (re: American) readers will appreciate.

Going back to that Granta interview with John Freeman, here are a few things that caught my eye:

JF: Some of your writing recalls the work of Günter Grass, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Were these writers available to you in China when you were growing up? Can you tell us a little about your influences?

MY: When I first started writing it was the year of 1981, so I didn’t read any books by Marquez or Faulkner. It was 1984 when I first read their works and undoubtedly those two writers have great influence on my creations. I found that my life experience is quite similar to theirs, but I only discovered this later on. If I had read their works sooner I would have already accomplished a masterpiece like they did. [. . .]

JF: You often write in the language of the local Laobaixing, and specifically the Shandong dialect, which gives your prose a flinty edge to it. Does it frustrate you that some of the idioms and puns might not make it into an English translation or are you able to work around that with your translator, Howard Goldblatt?

MY: Well, indeed, I use quite a substantial amount of local dialect, idioms and puns in my earlier works because at that time I didn’t even China has progressed but progress itself brings up many issues, for instance environmental issues and the decline in high moral standards. consider that my work would be translated into other languages. Later on I realised that this kind of language creates a lot of trouble for the translator. But to not use dialect, idioms and puns doesn’t work for me because idiomatic language is vivid, expressive and it is also the quintessential part of the signature language of a particular writer. So, on the one hand I can modify and adjust some of my usage of puns and idioms but on the other I hope that our translators, during their work, can echo the puns I use in another language – that is the ideal situation. [. . .]

JF: Is avoiding censorship a question of subtly and to what extend do the avenues opened up by magical realism, as well as more traditional techniques of characterisation allow a writer to express their deepest concerns without resorting to polemic?

MY: Yes, indeed. Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.

In the coverage of the award on the The Guardian, I read that the Nobel Prize secretary recommended starting with The Garlic Ballads. Just to give you a taste, here’s the opening of that novel:

“Gao Yang!”

The noonday sun beat down fiercely; dusty air carried the stink of rotting garlic after a prolonged dry spell. A flock of indigo crows flew wearily across the sky, casting a shadowy wedge. There had been no time to braid the garlic, which lay in heaps, reeking as it baked in the sun. Gao Yang, whose eyebrows sloped downward at the ends, was squatting alongside a table, holding a bowl of garlic broth and fighting back the waves of nausea rising from his stomach. The urgent shout had come in through his unlatched gate as he was about to take a sip of the broth. He recognized the voice as belonging to the village boss, Gao Jinjiao. Hastily laying down his bowl, he shouted a reply and walked to the door. “Is that you, Uncle Jinjiao? Come on in.”

That’s not much to go on, but I’d have to quote a lot more to give you a full sense of the book . . . If I find more excerpts online, I’ll post them separately.

For now, congrats to Mo Yan, and congrats to his English-language translator, Howard Goldblatt. (Who will hopefully get some royalties for this. If not, that’s a tragedy.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.