As Mo Yan prepares to speak in Stockholm — in less than 10 minutes, at 12:30 am local time, barring delays — the piece you should read if you haven’t already is Kenyon College assistant professor Anna Sun’s essay in the current issue of The Kenyon Review. Here’s an excerpt from “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan“:
Is “hallucinatory realism” the next, improved step of “hysterical realism”? The Latin root of “hallucination” refers to “a wandering of the mind,” and hallucinations are often described as dreamlike sensory experiences that have no relation to reality, which exists only in the imagination. It is reality heightened and transformed. Instead of an aimless velocity found in hysterical realism, here we expect a natural lavish flow of impressions, an extravagant and reckless expansion of the literary imagination. One imagines that the language of such hallucinatory realism must be fluid, colorful, affecting; it might even be extraordinarily so.
The kind of reality Mo Yan depicts in his impressive oeuvre might indeed be “hallucinatory reality.” The characters in his novels engage in struggles with war, hunger, desire, and nature; it deals with brutal aggression, sexual obsession, and a general permeation of both physical and symbolic violence in Chinese rural life. But unlike the great novelists who grapple with the harsher side of the human condition – Dickens, Hardy, and Faulkner, for example – Mo Yan’s work lacks something important which these authors have, although it is seldom spoken of: aesthetic conviction. The aesthetic power of these authors is the torch that illuminates for us the dark and painful truth of humanity. The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world.
And one more:
Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed, but it is striking because it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mo Yan’s writing is in fact a product of the aesthetic ideologies of Socialist China. As Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893-1976), the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1934 until his death, famously said in his seminal speech “The Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art” in 1942, a few years before the Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949: “Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.” As a result, Mao demanded writers in the socialist regime write for the masses: “China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses; they must for a long period of time unreservedly and whole-heartedly go among the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, go into the heat of the struggle. Only then can they proceed to creative work.” Not any kind of creative work, but work that serves the “proletarian revolutionary cause.”
As a result, a new literary language was invented…
Notable local translator Brendan O’Kane calls it “the best one I’ve seen so far” about Mo Yan, and that’s about right.
Mo’s Nobel speech can be watched live here.
From Anna Sun: “Mo Yan’s prose is an example of a prevailing disease that has been plaguing writers who came of age in what can be called the era of “Mao-ti,” a particular language and sensibility of writing promoted by Mao in the beginning of the revolution. The burden of this heritage can be seen not only in Mo Yan’s work, but also in the work of many other esteemed literary writers today, such as Yu Hua 余華 and Su Tong 蘇童.”
I, too, have found Yu Hua’s fictional language, at least in translation, to be rather plain and “vernacular,” or “folksy.” Yet he claims that this was a conscious shift after his earlier attempts at avant-garde storytelling in the 1980s, which “failed to connect ordinary readers.”
Is Mo Yan’s writerly evolution as simple and direct as Anna Sun argues, or like Yu Hua, has it followed a more circuitous path?
Note: Perry Link’s assessment of Mo yan is also worth a look:
Personally, I find Mo Yan to be somewhat bit disingenuous. For example:
“At the opening ceremonies of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2009, he read an officially vetted speech in which he claimed that literature should be above politics; but, when Chinese authorities ordered a boycott of a session where the freethinking writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling appeared, Mo Yan joined the walkout, later explaining that he “had no choice.””
Anyone raised in a Communist system knows very well that literature and politics are invariably linked: Either you chose to work within the system and recognize that literature has a certain propagandistic function (to help advance “the revolution”), or you chose to reject the system, and thereby adopt the position of a dissident, which is itself inherently political. Mo Yan seems to want to have it both ways, or more precisely, neither way: In effect, “Literature with Chinese characteristics.” Lol.
He also said of Liu Xiaobo this past October:
“I read some of his writings on literature in the 1980s…later, after he left literature and turned to politics, I haven’t had any contact with him, and I don’t understand much of what he has been doing since then.”
Again, this strikes me as highly disingenuous. If Mo Yan has no clue about what Liu Xiaobo has been doing since 1989, he’s a moron and lacks the kind of insight that any “great writer” by necessity brings to his work.
“I have always been independent. I like it that way. When someone forces me to do something I don’t do it.”
“…when Chinese authorities ordered a boycott of a session where the freethinking writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling appeared, Mo Yan joined the walkout, later explaining that he “had no choice.””
Surely a Nobel Prize winner should be more subtle than this?