In a recent Time magazine article, Donald Morrison described Mo Yan, the first Chinese to get the Nobel Prize for Literature, as someone who has tackled ‘China’s tumultuous past century with a mix of magical realism and sharp-eyed satire that has made him one of the most famous, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers’.
This could well be the reason that the Nobel jury this year was so taken with him. It could also be because 57-year-old Mo Yan (this is his pen name, which means ‘do not speak’; his real name is Guan Moye) writes historical novels generously peppered with ‘hallucinatory realism’, resplendent with black humour.
Mo Yan was forced out of school by his father and made to work as a farmer. This was to deeply influence his work later. The Garlic Ballads is about Chinese farmers who rioted when the government would not buy their crops, and The Republic of Wine uses cannibalism as a metaphor for Chinese self-destruction. One of his strengths is that he has never stopped writing about what ails China. As he wrote in Time in 2010, ‘Now that I can afford dumplings, why am I still writing? Because I have things to say.’
He started his writing career while serving in China’s People’s Liberation Army in the 1980s. Despite his controversial books, he enjoys official support in China. In 2011, he won China’s Mao Dun Literary Prize, which is approved by the government.
His recent most novel, Frog, looks at China’s strict one-child policy, and talks of officials who implement it without sympathy, forcing abortions and sterilisations. It’s got a daring heroine—a midwife who advocates such practices enthusiastically. She is later attacked by frogs, whose croaks are the wails of babies she has had aborted.