Howard Goldblatt

A poster of author Mo Yan, at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 11 (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages)

The 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Chinese author Mo Yan. It’s an interesting – and in some respects controversial – decision for the Swedish Academy, because unlike the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace prize, Mo Yan is an apparent supporter of China’s authoritarian regime. The FT’s Jamil Anderlini, Leslie Hook and Lorien Kite explain: “Mr Mo is a Communist party member and former soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. As vice-chairman of the government’s China Writers Association he holds a semi-official role in the Chinese political system.” Yet Mo has not always been so loved by the government; his novel The Garlic Ballads was banned in China for a period after its release, and his characterisation of those in power is often far from complimentary. Perhaps, as John Updike wrote in a 2005 review, “Mo Yan’s fate is to operate on the edge of official constraints”.

  • Time magazine interviewed Mo in March 2010. Reporter Simon Elegant argued: “By placing much of his writing in the past, and through the adroit subtlety of his magic-realist style, Mo Yan avoids stirring up the animosity of the country’s ever vigilant censors any more than he needs to”.
  • What to read if you want to get a flavour of Mo’s prize-winning writing? The academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, recommended The Garlic Ballads, written by Mo in the 1980s, as a good starting point. This New York Times review from 1995 praised it as “raw, brilliant, eventful”, and described Mo as “a kind of Chinese magical realist whose stories, grounded in gritty naturalism, in the smells and fluids of real life, are nonetheless full of hallucination, demonic possession and the grotesquery of dreams”. For a list of Mo’s major works – and their translations – the Nobel prize website has published a ‘bio-bibliography’ here.

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