The joke doing the rounds in Beijing is that the Swedes gave the Nobel Literature prize to the wrong Chinese. It should have gone to the Communist Party’s propaganda department, for writing the enthralling fantasy about the Politburo’s wife who (supposedly) pours cyanide into the mouth of a British businessman (or spy, as most people believe). Then, in a country which happily executes people for stealing bicycles, it lets off Neil Heyward’s murderer, Gu Kailai, with a suspended death sentence. Meanwhile, her husband, Bo Xilai, who (supposedly) siphoned off billions by extorting money from private businessmen, has so far only lost his party card. That’s the problem with China: it is so hard to write biting satire when there is such serious competition from the state sector.
Mo Yan (born in 1955) maybe a prolific and popular writer, but his novels, however grotesque and horrible their characters are, always seem to miss the mark. That’s why, when he goes on for page after page in the very worst taste, describing people being flayed alive or turned into speaking donkeys, it just doesn’t seem that funny or shocking. The official version of events is always more of an absurdist parody than anything produced by the most imaginative writer. Remember that Chairman Mao, adored by millions of youthful followers, was, according to his doctor, a Jimmy Savile-like paedophile who had a room in the Great Hall of the People to which he would retire during the most important political meetings to screw 13-year-olds.
Sadly, after a promising start, Mo Yan, an official writer for the People’s Liberation Army (yes, such things do exist in China), fell victim to various modish western literary fashions like surrealism, magic realism, multiple narrators, absurd time shifts and grotesque or scatalogical descriptions of the crudest human behaviour.
In the 1980s, he started out doing fairly conventional stories like Raise High the Red Lantern or Red Sorghum, with safe themes — oppressed women in old society or heroic peasants resisting cruel Japanese invaders. Luckily for him, the talented director Yang Yimou turned them into visually striking films. But then Mo Yan started reading the new flood of translated works of western authors, like Gabriel García Márquez, William Faulk-
ner, and, above all, that other Nobel prize-winner, Günter Grass. He then copied every stylistic trick and set his novels in China. (Much the same thing happened when Chinese painters started copying every experiment they found in the books on modern art which suddenly became available in the mid 1980s.)
For some time now, western critics and publishers have been desperate to honour an iconoclastic Chinese writer. Before Mo Yan there was the Paris-based writer Gao Xingjian in 2000, and his rambling Soul Mountain; and there was the equally unreadable Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong. In a sense, Mo Yan has won the prize just for doing modernism better than anyone else.
He writes long shaggy-dog stories set in his native Shandong village of north-east Gaomi, usually spanning many generations. The real problem is not their length, or his determination to throw as much disgusting material at the reader as possible, but his political inhibitions. By satirising everything and anything over the past 100 years in the manner of the revered Lu Xun, he gives the impression that Chinese society in general is all wrong.
When Lu Xun was writing in the early 20th century, and castigating society’s reluctance to abandon its Confucian ways, that might have worked. But these days, it’s only the Chinese Communist Party that refuses to change, as we shall shortly see when its rituals are paraded at next month’s 18th Party Congress.
During Mo’s lifetime, most Chinese have merely tried to endure the arbitrary rule of their very weird rulers. Unfortunately, it would be impossible for Mo Yan to survive in China if he singled out the Party for mockery. This means his works lack any real bite. Or, perhaps, he has figured out that the Party needs no help in making a mockery of itself. It does the job better than anyone else.