Mo Yan's 'Hallucinatory Realism' Wins Lit Nobel

Oct 11, 2012
Originally published on October 11, 2012 11:42 am

Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday. The Swedish Academy, which selects the winners of the award, praised Mo's "hallucinatory realism," saying it "merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." The award is a cause of pride for a government that disowned the only previous Chinese winner of the award, an exiled critic.

Peter Englund, the academy's permanent secretary, said the academy contacted Mo, 57, before the announcement. "He said he was overjoyed and scared," Englund said.

Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads and Big Breasts & Wide Hips. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports on Morning Edition, "He's said to be so prolific that he wrote Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out — which is a 500,000-word epic — in just 43 days. He wrote it with a brush — not a computer — because he says a computer would have slowed him down because he can't control himself when he's online; he always has to search up more information."

Chinese social media exploded with pride after the announcement. Mo's publisher called it a dream come true but said Mo always played down the importance of prizes. The reception of the award in China is a sharp contrast to the reactions when jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, infuriating the Chinese leadership. The communist leadership also disowned the Nobel when Gao Xingjian won the literature award in 2000 for his absurdist dramas and inventive fiction. Gao's works are laced with criticisms of China's communist government and have been banned in China.

Words From A Man Named 'Don't Speak'

Born Guan Moye in 1955 to a farming family in eastern Shandong province, Mo chose his pen name while writing his first novel. Garrulous by nature, Mo has said the name, meaning "don't speak," was intended to remind him to hold his tongue lest he get himself into trouble and to mask his identity since he began writing while serving in the army. Mo has said he finds it ironic that now he's speaking all the time, Neary says.

"His work is mostly about peasant life, set in the countryside," Neary says. "He often writes about the area where he grew up. ... He has said that folk literature, storytellers, his own family's stories have been a resource for him."

His breakthrough came with the novel Red Sorghum, published in 1987. Set in a small village, like much of his fiction, Red Sorghum is an earthy tale of love and peasant struggles set against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese war. It was turned into a film that won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988, marked the directing debut of Zhang Yimou and boosted Mo's popularity.

Mo writes of visceral pleasures and existential quandaries, and tends to create vivid, mouthy characters. While his early work stuck to a straightforward narrative structure enlivened by vivid descriptions and raunchy humor, Mo has lately become more experimental, toying with different narrators and embracing a freewheeling style often described as "Chinese magical realism."

"His writing appeals to all your senses," Englund said.

Mo was a somewhat unexpected choice for the Nobel jury, which has been criticized for being too Eurocentric. European authors had won four of the past five awards, with last year's prize going to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. As with the other Nobel Prizes, the prize is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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