By Alan Cowell
The Swedish Academy announced on Thursday that it had awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan, a Chinese author who was said to be “overjoyed and scared” when the Nobel organisers contacted him to say he had won the coveted award.
“Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” the citation for the award declared, striking what seemed a careful balance after campaigns of vilification against other Chinese Nobel laureates.
While his American audience has been limited, a film based on his novel “Red Sorghum” and directed by Zhang Yimou, was one of the most internationally acclaimed Chinese films, seen by millions.
In addition to novels, Mo Yan has published short stories, essays on various topics, and “despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors,” the citation said.
When the organisers contacted him, said Peter Englund, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, “he said he was overjoyed and scared,” The Associated Press reported, adding that China’s tightly controlled national television took the highly unusual step of breaking into a newscast to announce the award.
Mo was born in 1955 in Gaomi, China. The citation described him as a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”
The name Mo Yan is a pseudonym for Guan Moye. He is the son of farmers who left school during the Cultural Revolution to work, first in agriculture and later in a factory, according to his Nobel biography. In 1976 he joined the People’s Liberation Army and began to study literature and write. His first short story was published in a literary journal in 1981, the biography on the Nobel Web site said.
“In his writing Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth,” the biography said, referring to his 1987 novel published in English as “Red Sorghum” in 1993.
His novel “The Garlic Ballads,” as it was called on its publication in English in 1995, and other works “have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.”
Other works include “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” (1996), “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out” (2006) and “Sandalwood Death,” to be published in English in 2013. His most recent published work, called “Wa” in Chinese (2009) “illuminates the consequences of China’s imposition of a single-child policy.”
Mo was one of three writers tipped by bookmakers to break what critics had seen as a preponderance of European winners over the past decade.
The prize is worth 8 million Swedish kronor, about $1.2 million.
Since 1901, 104 Nobel literature prizes have been awarded, the most recent to Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet, whose more than 15 collections of poetry, the academy said last year, offered “condensed, translucent images” through which “he gives us fresh access to reality.”
The Japanese author Haruki Murakami had been tipped by bookmakers as the most likely winner, but the panel selecting the winner prides itself on its inscrutability, keeping its deliberations secret for 50 years.
The last American writer to win a Nobel in literature was Toni Morrison in 1993. Philip Roth has been a perennial favorite but has not been selected.
Nobel committees have announced prizes so far this week in physics, chemistry and medicine. The 2012 Nobel Peace laureate is to be named on Friday by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and the prize in economics is to be announced on Monday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
© 2012 The New York Times News Service