If the task before a writer is to be a spokesman against injustice, a defiant risk-taker who is unafraid to criticise his state openly and often, Mo Yan is a failure.
As many dissident Chinese writers and artists, from Ai Weiwei to Ma Jian, pointed out after he had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan’s silence has lived up to the name he took years ago, when he began writing. Mo Yan was born Guan Moye in 1955. In an interview with Jim Leach, he recalled his childhood years, when his parents told him not to speak “outside”, or he would get into trouble.
When he became a writer, after years of working in different professions, from being a soldier in the PLA to teaching, he chose Mo Yan – “Don’t Speak” – as his pseudonym. And he lived up to it. With a few exceptions, Mo Yan, who lives and works in China, and has not chosen the path of exile, had rarely spoken up in protest, when yet another writer was silenced, exiled or imprisoned.
That changed with the Nobel announcement. In one of his first interviews, Mo Yan was asked what he felt about the continued imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize who remains in jail. Mo Yan’s response was a masterpiece of doublespeak, expressing his firm belief that Mr Liu should be released, while allowing enough ambiguity to keep the powers in China happy. “I now hope that he can regain his freedom very soon … then he can study his politics and the social system”.
However, if the task before a writer is to express his own truth, without fear or dissembling, while living in a system that has severe penalties for dissent, Mo Yan has been more successful than most of China’s dissident writers.
The question he – and the Swedish Academy by extension – raises is crucial. Is the measure of a writer’s worth to be made by his public gestures, or does a writer’s work speak for itself?
As a public figure, Mo Yan has chosen to yield, rather than confront. He is known to have copied out one of Mao Zedong’s speeches by hand in his days as a good soldier of the PLA. He has rarely spoken up for dissident writers. Mo Yan, as his name suggests, has built a history of silence. But the writer is one thing, the writing another.
As an aside, calling Mo Yan “unknown” is akin to declaring that O V Vijayan, Manto and Tagore are “unknown” authors: it’s one way of putting your ignorance on public display. It may, perhaps, be harder for Indians to know of Mo Yan, since our influences were shaped by other market forces. The Russians and the Latin Americans were big influences on Indian readers in the 1970s and 1980s; British writers were well known in India from Independence onwards; and more recently, American and European pulp fiction and self-help have been influential. China and India never had publishing trade agreements in place, and so we missed reading in Chinese, even though we read “in Russian” at one stage.
But Mo Yan’s novels dominated Chinese literature, shaping each decade. The Red Sorghum novels sprawled across the 1980s; The Republic of Wine and Big Breasts and Wide Hips were bestsellers in the 1990s; the 2000s have seen Sandalwood Death, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and the remarkable Change — Pow! is expected soon.
By writing about the past, Mo Yan gives himself an extraordinary freedom, and it is here, in his novels rather than his mild interviews, that the real writer steps forward. “With this book, I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright-red sorghum fields of my hometown,” he writes in the epigraph to Red Sorghum.
It seems polite enough, this introduction to a book that sets out a layered history of cruelty: cruelty inflicted upon the Chinese by the Japanese, upon innocent animals by the suffering Chinese, upon each other by the Chinese once they have power, a dark chronicle leavened with lightning touches of grace. As with many of his other works, Red Sorghum is both incendiary and subversive, all the more so because Mo Yan – not free to write about the censored present – wrote with incandescent freedom about the uncensored past.
“As your unfilial son,” he continues in his epigraph, “I am prepared to carve out my own heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!” This, then, is Mo Yan’s credo as a writer. He will give you all of himself, ask you to devour his beating, mutilated heart. It is up to you to open his books, and partake of everything he has been free to say within their pages, everything that he has remained silent about outside their bound covers.