HYDERABAD: If one considers a pie-chart of Nobel Prize laureates in literature by country, the Chinese slice would be as thin as ours. For almost nine decades, India had a 1-0 lead, thanks to Rabindranath Tagore. The Chinese opened their account in 2000 with émigré novelist Gao Xingjian (a French citizen when he won the prize). The very next year, the prize went to Trinidadian-British writer V S Naipaul. But there was an Indian connection - Naipaul’s grandparents had migrated from India to the Caribbean in the 1880s - and Naipaul had written no less than three books about India. Alright, 2-1 to India. The score was ultimately leveled by Mo Yan’s win in 2012, and that is where it stands today.
Mo Yan’s nod was not without controversy. The 2009 winner, Herta Muller, called it a ‘catastrophe.’ She talked of Yan as someone who toed the Communist party line and failed to speak out for the independence of intellectuals in China. In other words, she called him a ‘State poet’ in a pejorative sense.
The hypothesis isn’t entirely supported from Yan’s work, which often satirises the early days of Chinese communism. Perhaps by keeping his settings rural and placing his work in times before the Cultural Revolution, Yan was trying not to offend anyone. But there are also numerous exceptions to this in his work. Moreover, the man’s adoption of the name ‘Mo Yan’ (Guan Moye was his real name) suggests a more complicated relationship with the powers-that-be. Mo Yan means ‘Don’t speak.’ That’s a gesture, right? Political affiliations not withstanding, Mo Yan’s work cannot be called undeserving of the top prize. The Nobel committee saw in him someone ‘who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary,’ and indeed, Yan’s greatest work, the novel titled Red Sorghum, is ample evidence for the same.
Red Sorghum is about the Chinese resistance against the Japanese in the Second World War. The story entwines the country’s history with one family’s history and produces a tragi-comic account over three generations, in much the same mode that successful magical realist novels of the previous century employed. In that respect, Red Sorghum is on the same shelf as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Grass’s The Tin Drum and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
If there is one attribute that differentiates Yan from the other three masters of magical realism, it is the unflinching descriptions of violence of all kinds in his work. In Red Sorghum, for example, a character gets ‘skinned alive’ pretty early in the novel. It is through such staring-into violence that Yan perhaps makes a point about China’s bloodied history, about the incalculable effects of violence in the country’s cultural and political life over changing eras and regimes.
A short-cut to Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum could be through watching the 1987 movie adaptation by the same name, by the famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The film, however, concerns itself with only half of the novel.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in July 2016)