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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize more macchiato than flat white

Mo Yan.
It's been a week since Guan Moye, who writes novels under the pen name "Mo Yan", won the Nobel Prize for Literature and globally, in the public sphere, the matter has been heavily contested. It's no surprise that this is the case. On the one hand, Western journals have been publishing articles by people who have a strong interest in seeing democracy establish itself in China, like this one, while on the other hand the Chinese Communist Party is falling over itself with excitement at finally seeing a kosher candidate for world fame carry the torch for the homeland team. As an excellent article from the Japan Times explains:
"The Chinese people have a long history and a glorious culture," said Hong Lei, [a Chinese Foreign Ministry] spokesman. "This is a treasure shared by all humanity. We hope our friends in every country around the world can better understand Chinese culture and get a better feeling for the charm of Chinese literature."
Sustained general applause. Then, what? Diminishing silence? It's hard to say, but we're all watching. Western journals have made much of Mo Yan's Party credentials. He was involved in censuring dissident Chinese writers during a book fair a year ago by walking out when they were invited to talk publicly. He is a state functionary in the pay of the Party, too. And high-profile maverick artist Ai Weiwei has lashed out at the Nobel Committee's decision in typically ascerbic style, lambasting them roundly. For his part, Mo Yan can expect as an immediate consequence of the award a boost to his royalty payments; in China alone the printers have been busy bringing out more copies of his books. But as Frank Ching, the JT correspondent, notes, Mo "will have to tread a fine line, not offending the party too egregiously while maintaining the intellectual integrity of a Nobel laureate".

Mo looks like a circumspect fellow. You can imagine him being reasonable and measured in his pronouncements. His plain face has an inscrutable tone that says, "Of course, I agree with you entirely, but just let me say ..." It's the kind of face that could belong to an honest paterfamilias, father of children and husband to a fair wife, a man used to navigating carefully between the competing demands of multiple actors, a man who seeks the optimal result that can satisfy the requirements of all parties. You don't rock the boat but, at the same time, a few things need to be taken into consideration ... . So when he said he hoped that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Lui Xiaobo would be released as soon as possible, he was clearly stepping out of his comfort zone. As Ching notes, we'll have to wait until December, and Mo's acceptance speech delivered in Stockholm, to gauge the full measure of this gentleman.

For its part, the Communist Party must tread carefully to avoid looking completely out of touch with global opinion. Foreigners will not be reading Mo's novels in order to appraise themselves of the eternal beauties of Chinese culture, but rather they will be looking for signs of the ways that a card-carrying Communist was able to satisfy the requirements of the demanding Nobel academic panel. People in other countries who buy any of Mo's books at this point in time won't be swatting up on Chinese culture so much as looking for the traces of democratic aspiration in Mo's stories.

The Party's pronouncements to date demonstrate that it is likely to adopt the delineations of that popular comic character from Hollywood, the over-eager parent whose single-minded zeal in pursuit of greatness for her patient child threatens to alienate the entire cast of the film. There are pitfalls available for this kind of cinematic type and they can include universal ridicule, keen embarrassment, physical harm, financial ruin, and even a devastating brush with the law. By this logic, Mo's award should be treated with respect by the Party. I have faith that Mo himself will behave with reasonable care to avoid a public pratfall, but whether the Party can restrain its overreaching passion in pursuit of global acclaim is another thing entirely.

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