In the literary world, there are prizes and there are prizes. And then there is the Nobel. The annual award, available to any writer in any country, is prestigious, lucrative and meant to recognize a lifetime of work. But for the last half-century the prize has swung from celebrating literary excellence to making political statements.
Those statements have often been muddled, especially where the politics have concerned superpowers on the rise or wane. The decision this week to award the 2012 prize to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan may be an especially awkward example of the Nobel's non-literary instincts, but it isn't new.
First, the laureate himself. Born in 1955 into a farming family in Shandong province, Mo Yan survived the Cultural Revolution – no small achievement – and came of age during the 1980s thaw. The 1987 film Red Sorghum, based on two of his early novels and directed by the great Zhang Yimou, re-introduced Chinese cinema after decades of communist-imposed silence.
Subsequent Mo Yan novels from the 1990s, The Garlic Ballads and The Republic of Wine, established him as a satirist with the clarity of insight, and artistic daring, to portray contemporary China as a surreal cross of Franz Kafka and Lu Xun, with the wildness of Chinese folklore tossed into the mix.
In all his translated writings, Mo Yan sides with regular folk obliged to deal with an officialdom that is capricious and cruel. His short-story collection Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, published in English in 2002, focuses on a group of laid-off factory workers who open a fake massage parlour. Zhang Yimou adopted that story for the screen as well, and ran into troubles with Chinese censors.
Mo Yan has had his share of troubles with those same authorities, but has managed to keep publishing, and continue living, in China. He has done so in part by adhering to his own pen name – Mo Yan means "don't speak" in Chinese – in part by writing novels that cloak their critiques in humour and bawdiness, and in part, perhaps, by picking his fights on the page, rather than in public life.
As such, his membership in the Communist Party, now being scrutinized by critics of the Nobel's decision, and his willingness to participate in "official" – i.e., state-sanctioned – literary culture, is in keeping with the delicate balance he must wish to maintain.
Mo Yan's recent quarrels with exiled writers, and his willingness to defend the regime in Beijing, haven't flattered his image. But he did call for the release of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo on his first day as the 2012 laureate, and may prove those critics wrong. And it must be said: Being any kind of thinking, caring citizen in China is hard – a fine balance indeed.
Two other things need be said about Mo Yan. Though a very good writer, he is neither the most significant living Chinese author, nor the first to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. (Contrary to what the Chinese authorities have been trumpeting since the announcement on Thursday.) Gao Xingjian, who did not set foot outside his homeland until age 40, was awarded the 2000 Nobel, and Ma Jian, author of the monumental Beijing Coma, is an artist of global significance.
But Gao Xingjian, unable to abide the lack of freedom, has been a French citizen since 1997 and Ma Jian likewise lives and writes in exile in London. Here is the rub, and the reason why scrutiny should turn from Mo Yan to the Nobel committee itself, and this latest use of the prize as a political statement – in this case, an apparent nod to the might of 21st-century China.
The Nobel can't pluck the exiled Gao Xingjian out of obscurity in 2000 as a gesture of solidarity with the dissident artist, and an implicit critique of China's human-rights record, and then award the China-resident, somewhat regime-friendly Mo Yan 12 years later. Not, at least, when that human-rights record is, if anything, worse than it was a decade ago, and a fellow Nobel laureate languishes in a Chinese prison.
The Nobel committee has made such a sloppy show of its convictions before. In 1958, the prize was given to the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak for Dr. Zhivago, and to deliberately highlight the plight of artists in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to decline.
Seven years later, however, the prize was awarded to a genuinely Soviet novelist, the laborious Mikhail Sholokhov, despite scarcely improved circumstances in Russia. Sure enough, a scant half-decade further into the steady decline of the Soviet empire, the Nobel committee flipped again by acknowledging the courage and defiance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Politically speaking, they were all over the map.
With China, they appear once more unable to sort out where, or with whom, they stand. For the record, the committee could try just standing with literature itself, rewarding careers of sustained achievement – wherever those careers unfold. They do so from time to time, but not consistently enough.
And yes, if they did stick to this approach, Canada would probably have a laureate by now. By those reasoned measures, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or Rohinton Mistry would all make for worthy Nobel winners.
Charles Foran is the author of 10 books, including the biography Mordecai: The Life and Times.