11 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Mo Yan accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature the other day, giving this acceptance speech:

In the fall of 1984 I was accepted into the Literature Department of the PLA Art Academy, where, under the guidance of my revered mentor, the renowned writer Xu Huaizhong, I wrote a series of stories and novellas, including: “Autumn Floods,” “Dry River,” “The Transparent Carrot,” and “Red Sorghum.” Northeast Gaomi Township made its first appearance in “Autumn Floods,” and from that moment on, like a wandering peasant who finds his own piece of land, this literary vagabond found a place he could call his own. I must say that in the course of creating my literary domain, Northeast Gaomi Township, I was greatly inspired by the American novelist William Faulkner and the Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. I had not read either of them extensively, but was encouraged by the bold, unrestrained way they created new territory in writing, and learned from them that a writer must have a place that belongs to him alone. Humility and compromise are ideal in one’s daily life, but in literary creation, supreme self-confidence and the need to follow one’s own instincts are essential. For two years I followed in the footsteps of these two masters before realizing that I had to escape their influence; this is how I characterized that decision in an essay: They were a pair of blazing furnaces, I was a block of ice. If I got too close to them, I would dissolve into a cloud of steam. In my understanding, one writer influences another when they enjoy a profound spiritual kinship, what is often referred to as “hearts beating in unison.” That explains why, though I had read little of their work, a few pages were sufficient for me to comprehend what they were doing and how they were doing it, which led to my understanding of what I should do and how I should do it.

What I should do was simplicity itself: Write my own stories in my own way. My way was that of the marketplace storyteller, with which I was so familiar, the way my grandfather and my grandmother and other village old-timers told stories. In all candor, I never gave a thought to audience when I was telling my stories; perhaps my audience was made up of people like my mother, and perhaps it was only me. The early stories were narrations of my personal experience: the boy who received a whipping in “Dry River,” for instance, or the boy who never spoke in “The Transparent Carrot.” I had actually done something bad enough to receive a whipping from my father, and I had actually worked the bellows for a blacksmith on a bridge site. Naturally, personal experience cannot be turned into fiction exactly as it happened, no matter how unique that might be. Fiction has to be fictional, has to be imaginative. To many of my friends, “The Transparent Carrot” is my very best story; I have no opinion one way or the other. What I can say is, “The Transparent Carrot” is more symbolic and more profoundly meaningful than any other story I’ve written. That dark-skinned boy with the superhuman ability to suffer and a superhuman degree of sensitivity represents the soul of my entire fictional output. Not one of all the fictional characters I’ve created since then is as close to my soul as he is. Or put a different way, among all the characters a writer creates, there is always one that stands above all the others. For me, that laconic boy is the one. Though he says nothing, he leads the way for all the others, in all their variety, performing freely on the Northeast Gaomi Township stage. [. . .]

My greatest challenges come with writing novels that deal with social realities, such as The Garlic Ballads, not because I’m afraid of being openly critical of the darker aspects of society, but because heated emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature and transform a novel into reportage of a social event. As a member of society, a novelist is entitled to his own stance and viewpoint; but when he is writing he must take a humanistic stance, and write accordingly. Only then can literature not just originate in events, but transcend them, not just show concern for politics but be greater than politics.

Possibly because I’ve lived so much of my life in difficult circumstances, I think I have a more profound understanding of life. I know what real courage is, and I understand true compassion. I know that nebulous terrain exists in the hearts and minds of every person, terrain that cannot be adequately characterized in simple terms of right and wrong or good and bad, and this vast territory is where a writer gives free rein to his talent. So long as the work correctly and vividly describes this nebulous, massively contradictory terrain, it will inevitably transcend politics and be endowed with literary excellence.

Prattling on and on about my own work must be annoying, but my life and works are inextricably linked, so if I don’t talk about my work, I don’t know what else to say. I hope you are in a forgiving mood.

The stuff about his writing, etc., is decent enough, but these few paragraphs towards the end are a bit more intriguing:

The announcement of my Nobel Prize has led to controversy. At first I thought I was the target of the disputes, but over time I’ve come to realize that the real target was a person who had nothing to do with me. Like someone watching a play in a theater, I observed the performances around me. I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers. I was afraid he would succumb to the assault, but he emerged from the garlands of flowers and the stones, a smile on his face; he wiped away mud and grime, stood calmly off to the side, and said to the crowd:

For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated. I would like you to find the patience to read my books. I cannot force you to do that, and even if you do, I do not expect your opinion of me to change. No writer has yet appeared, anywhere in the world, who is liked by all his readers; that is especially true during times like these. [. . .]

I am a storyteller.

Telling stories earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many interesting things have happened to me in the wake of winning the prize, and they have convinced me that truth and justice are alive and well.

So I will continue telling my stories in the days to come.

As is detailed in today’s issue of Publishing Perspectives, the main controversy regarding Mo Yan and the Nobel is his take on the censorship imposed by the Chinese Government. One of the most outspoken critics of Mo Yan is fellow Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, who said it was a “catastrophe” that Mo Yan received the award. From Publishing Perspectives:

Müller went on to criticize Mo for hand-copying a Mao Zedong speech, in which the deceased ruler stated that all art and culture should serve the Communist government, and for doing little to help the plight of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

OK, so onto that Liu Xiaobo bit. This article from The Guardian really brings home this issue:

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot. [. . .]

This year’s Nobel prize in literature winner, Mo Yan, who has been criticised for his membership in China’s Communist party and reluctance to speak out against the country’s government, has defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.

He also suggested he won’t join an appeal calling for the release of the jailed 2010 Peace prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and compatriot.

Obviously this is something that doesn’t sit well with most Western liberal, free-speech loving folks. Again, Publishing Perspectives puts this best:

Censorship appears to be simply indefensible, but like many things between East and West, there may be a disconnect. The Chinese themselves prevaricate on the issue, sometimes tolerating dissent so long as it stays on the fringes and does not disturb the masses. When it comes to book publishing in China, the government controls access to ISBNs, printing, distribution…the entire publishing production chain. Independent publishing may be nascent, but it is hardly robust or much of an alternative. Most Chinese authors who wish to publicly criticize the country simply leave (if they can), which in turn opens them up to criticism that they have lost touch about the country and have no authority on which to comment about it. Those who stay, like Mo Yan, make compromises.

Publicly, the Chinese Communist Party says censorship is necessary to govern a sprawling nation. But what goes unsaid is that censorship is also a hammer, one which enables them to beat down opposition and sustain power. After all, knowledge is power and if you control the means of access to knowledge, you control the power. Plain and simple.

So, yeah. What’s curious though is this review of Pow! in which Andrea Lingenfelter complicates the view that Mo Yan is a government stooge:

If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there?

In the end, hopefully the art transcends the artist? I mean, I do know a lot of artists I’d rather not know, especially since it reflects on their work. And I’m personally still interested in reading more of his works—especially Pow!. That said, this is a blow to the credibility of the Swedish Academy (in my opinion), which is definitely not what it needs . . .

1 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Courtesy of old college friend Naomi Firestone of the awesome Jewish Book Council, here’s an insane blog post that seems too insane/amazing to be true from a fellow North Carolinian on the blog Ocracoke Island Journal:

Some weeks ago I decided that I wanted to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Lou Ann loaned me her copy. At more than 1100 pages, reading it in bed required as much strength as balancing a box of bricks in my hands. In my senior years I have developed arthritis in my thumbs, which made the effort not only difficult, but painful.

I had read about half of the novel when I was given the gift of a Nook, the e-reader from Barnes and Noble. Although I am committed to supporting my neighborhood independent book store (Books to be Red), and enjoying honest-to-goodness books, the .99 Nook edition was so lightweight that it has made reading War and Peace a genuine pleasure. For those of you who have not tackled this tome as yet, it is a page-turner.

As I was reading, I came across this sentence: “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern….” Thinking this was simply a glitch in the software, I ignored the intrusive word and continued reading. Some pages later I encountered the rogue word again. With my third encounter I decided to retrieve my hard cover book and find the original (well, the translated) text.

For the sentence above I discovered this genuine translation: “It was as if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern….”

Someone at Barnes and Noble (a twenty year old employee? or maybe the CEO?) had substituted every incidence of “kindled” with “Nookd!”

If this story of intrepid word replacement is true, it’s another remarkable example of the. It’s a form of censorship, plain and simple, that takes advantage of EVERYONE . . . it takes advantage of the meaning of the word in a text, the role of the translator, the role of the publisher, the role of the reader, and the role of Barnes & Noble to keep their dirty money-lovin’ fingers out of the e-readers they are providing to the reading public. Want to compete with Amazon? Go for it, I’m all about it. But this isn’t the way to do it, and if Barnes & Noble keeps it up, they will most certainly hear of it with mass market rejection far beyond what they and their peer big-box retailing institutions have suffered. Dammit, I hate any example of anybody making Jeff Bezos look better by comparison.

Your thoughts?

22 June 11 | Julianna Romanazzi | Comments

A woman receives letters from an unknown man. Racy? Possibly.

The story above, “Obscenities for a Housewife” (“Obscenidades para uma dona de casa”), by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão is part of the Brazilian bestselling anthology The 100 Best Brazilian Short Stories of the Century (Os cem melhores contos brasileiros do século), a book that was banned earlier this year after being called “inappropriate.”

The book includes stories from acclaimed Brazilian authors Clarice Lispector, Carlo Drummond de Andrade, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, among many others, and was bought in bulk by the Brazilian government for public schools as an expedient way to introduce students to Brazil’s literary tradition and culture.

Since then the book, published by Objetiva, has been banned from public schools by the Sao Paulo State due to an objection by mothers against Brandão’s story. A Brazilian court backed the mothers’ objection, citing a “high sexual content” in the book. There is no word on what will become of the government’s copies or if another book might replace the anthology in public schools’ curriculums. Maybe they should ask the mothers.

While I am no expert on school standards or public education, I did manage to find a translated version of the text (of the story, not the book) and read it, and it is surprisingly dirty. Dirty enough to be banned? Perhaps. But as much as I am usually against censorship it might not matter on this one. The book is already a bestseller in Brazil and popular in bookstores. Regardless of the ban, the book is still out there if kids really want to read it.

But then, that too might be up to the mothers.

If you would like to have an opinion on this yourself, you can read the Portuguese text for Obscenities here. And here’s the Google Translated version, of which, only the swear words are coherent.

21 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back on December 11th, Liu Xiabo was formally indicted by the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate for “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge that is often leveled against writers the Chinese government wishes to silence.

Here’s a bit more background info from PEN America:

Liu Xiaobo is a renowned literary critic, writer, and political activist based in Beijing. He served as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2003 to 2007 and currently holds a seat on its board. Liu Xiaobo was a professor at Beijing Normal University and has worked as a visiting scholar at several universities outside of China, including the University of Oslo, the University of Hawaii, and Columbia University in New York City.

Liu Xiaobo was formally arrested by the Beijing Public Security Bureau on June 23, 2009 and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for co-authoring Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China that has been signed by hundreds of individuals from all walks of life throughout the country. His case was officially moved to the prosecutor’s office on December 8, 2009. He had been detained a year earlier, on December 8, 2008, and held for six months and two weeks under “residential surveillance” while police gathered evidence on his case. Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, was only been permitted to visit him twice, he did not have access to a lawyer and he was denied writing materials while detained at an undisclosed location in Beijing. Since his arrest, he has been held at the No. 1 Detention Center of Beijing City, where he has finally had access to his lawyers. If convicted of the subversion charge, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

To help bring more attention to Liu Xiaobo’s case, PEN has organized a click-and-send letter-writing campaign and petition signing. Just follow that link and look at the “Take Action” section to participate.

21 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Early this month, Open Letter released its new translation of The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, a satiric Russian writing duo from the 1930s who are most well known for this novel and its predecessor, The Twelve Chairs , which was made into a Mel Brooks movie. Both of these books are insanely funny, although to be honest, I think Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich’s translation of The Golden Calf is much better at capturing the wit and sharp observations found in the original. (Click here for an excerpt so you can see what I mean.) (As a further sidenote: it will always be amazing to me how seamless and of a single voice this book is, despite the fact that four people wrote/translated it.

As is noted on the back of the book, press materials, etc., this is the “first complete translation” of the novel. A few people have asked about this, curious as to what political jabs the Soviet censors cut from the original. Well, here to explain is Konstantin Gurevich, one of the translators, and probably the most knowledgeable person in America when it comes to The Golden Calf and Ilf and Petrov in general.

“Filling in Gaps in The Golden Calf“ by Konstantin Gurevich

Anybody even vaguely familiar with Soviet history would look at the birth and death dates of Ilf (1897-1937) and Petrov (1903-1942) and assume that one perished in Stalin’s purges and the other either in the purges or in World War II. Petrov was indeed a war casualty, killed in a plane crash returning from the front lines as a war correspondent. Ilf, however, died of tuberculosis in his own bed, in a reasonably comfortable apartment not far from the Kremlin. A good assumption, but only partially true.

By the same token, when “uncensored” versions of The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf first appeared in the 1990s, some fans expected to discover previously unknown references and satire that might possibly change their view of Ilf & Petrov’s famous novels.

Nothing of the sort. There were no hidden allusions, no references to Trotsky or other villains of Soviet propaganda, no political humor that we weren’t already familiar with. The differences were largely editorial, and in the case of The Golden Calf, very minor.

In fact, comparing the recent edition of The Golden Calf on which we based our translation (Open Letter, 2009) with the 1976 Soviet edition that we own, we found exactly three gaps that were clearly the product of political censorship.

  • In “From the Authors,” the name of the then-Prosecutor General, Krylenko, was omitted. Nikolai Krylenko was executed in 1938 and officially remained “the enemy of the people” for many years.
  • In Chapter 2, all references to the Volga Germans were excised. These Germans were exiled to Siberia and Central Asia in 1941, shortly after the Nazi invasion began, and their republic was dissolved.
  • In Chapter 9, the word “bandits” is missing from the sentence “Look what they did, those bandits Marx and Engels!”

Not much for a novel that’s well over 300 pages long.

Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that all these omissions were made years after the early Russian editions of The Golden Calf had appeared—if only because neither Krylenko nor the Volga Germans were taboos back then, while the “bandits” do appear in the first English translation of the novel (1932).

Nevertheless, our translation does include some text that didn’t appear in either of the two previous translations, but this is not because of political censorship. These are the entire From the Authors piece and a few paragraphs in the beginning of Chapter 7 (the Romualdych vignette).

In addition, the first translation skips almost two pages in the beginning of Chapter 9, while the second (1962) omits several other passages (e.g., in Chapters 9, 18, and 27), some half-a-page long. This is why we consider our translation the first complete English translation of The Golden Calf.

We do not know whether the publishers or the translators themselves were responsible for the gaps in both previous translations—or what their reasons were. But in 1932, Ilf and Petrov were viewed in the West as young new authors. By 1962, they would have been perceived as cult novelists. Today, their books are undisputed classics of Russian literature: The Golden Calf alone has inspired two movies, a TV miniseries, and statues of its main characters in places like St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa. These texts have to be treated with respect.

20 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few of Juan Marse’s books are available in the UK, but all the U.S. versions appear to be out of print. Which is a shame—based on the report below, The Fallen sounds spectacular:

Official Censorship Report of 1973 on Si te dicen que cai (The Fallen)

SECOND REPORT
Author: Juan Marse
Title: Si te dicen que cai [The Fallen]

REPORT
Does it attack the Dogman? YES. Pages 277-27
Franco’s Regime or its institutions? YES. Pages 252-274-291-309
The Catholic Church or its ministers? YES. Pages 17-21-75-155-178-202
The morals? YES. Pages 177-178-225-292-304-305-335
Those who collaborate with or have collaborated with the regime? YES.

REPORT AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS:

We consider this novel to be simply impossible to sanction. We have marked insults to the yoke and arrows [Falangist symbols], which are referred to as “the black spider” on pages 17-21-75-155-178-202-252-274-291-309. Scenes of torture by the Civil Guard or by Falangists on pages 177-178-225-292-304-305-335. Inadmissible allusions to the Civil Guard on pages 277-278. Obscenities and pornographic scenes on pages 19-21-25-26-27-28-29. Political scenes on 29-80 and grave irreverence on 107.

But even once all that is taken out, the novel is still pure garbage. It is the story of some boys in the period after the Civil War who live in deplorable conditions, they end up becoming Commie gunmen, stick-up artists, and then dying . . . all that mixed with whores, faggots, people of ill repute . . . Perhaps it is very realistic but it gives a very distorted, almost calumnious image of post-war Spain. Even if we just blacked out every reference to jerking off and hand-job whores in the movie theaters we’d be left with less than half the novel.

Therefore, we recommend its REJECTION

Madrid, October 20th, 1973

Reader No, 6

The specific reference to “hand-job whores in the movie theaters” is classic—and makes a perfect blurb for the book . . . (Thanks to the Gloria and the Carmen Balcells Agency for letting us run this.)

26 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

This post by Bruce Humes highlighting all the bits cut out of the Chinese translation of a recent Newsweek profile of author Yu Hua (Brothers) is fascinating:

Yu, a former dentist with the charm of a salesman and an unassuming nature that have earned him comparisons to a peasant, has avoided the censorship of Chinese authorities in part by never writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, he is surprised that the West remains so fascinated by the brutal suppression of student democracy demonstrators in 1989. “Chinese people aren’t really concerned with it anymore,” he says with a laugh. “The younger generation doesn’t know about it because no one has told them. The intellectuals don’t care because things are good now.”

Brothers begins in a much more desolate era. Early in the novel, the Cultural Revolution descends on their town, known as Liu. Gangs of Red Guards patrol the city searching for counterrevolutionaries, “wielding kitchen cleavers and axes, until the electrical poles, the wutong trees, the walls, and the streets were all splattered with blood,” writes Yu. At times, Song Gang and Baldy Li are so poor that all they to swallow is their own saliva. The death of their mother, Li Lan, in the late 1970s marks the end of the Mao years and China’s revolutionary frenzy. “The dead had departed; the living remained,” Yu writes.

In the second half of the novel, Baldy Li and Song Gang separate, each striving to get rich. Baldy Li concocts a number of dishonest, unethical moneymaking schemes to turn him into the richest man in town. In one, the National Virgin Beauty Competition, originally titled the Hymen Olympic Games, 3,000 women compete for the title. But few are actually virgins and many sleep with the judges. Baldy Li awards first and third place to two of the contestants he beds–underscoring China’s rampant corruption. Meanwhile, Song Gang lacks the ruthlessness that Baldy Li wields to suceed in cash-obsessed modern China.

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