‘My story begins on January 1, 1950. In the two years prior to that, I suffered cruel torture such as no man can imagine in the bowels of hell … they flung me into a vat of boiling oil, in which I tumbled and turned and sizzled like a fried chicken for about an hour. Words cannot do justice to the agony I experienced until an attendant speared me with a trident and, holding me high, carried me up to the palace steps. …
"Great Lord," he announced, "he has been fried."
This excerpt is from the opening paragraph of Mo Yan's 2008 novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, which I read a few days ago.
By now, the civilized world knows that Mo, 57, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am embarrassed to acknowledge that as a literature teacher who has followed the Nobel since the early 1970s, I had not read any of Mo's work until now. He is the first Chinese citizen to win the prize.
Mo's work is described as "hallucinatory realism" for good reason. Although fact-based and set in real rural China, the stories are allegorical and satirical, fused with black humor, ambiguity, incredible events and fanciful characters that include talking animals.
Smart readers know that Mo is up to something. Beneath the fairy tale ambience of Life and Death, his most important novel, lurks the harsh reality of China's land redistribution program. The tale is narrated by five animals. They are reincarnations of the protagonist, a benevolent landowner imprisoned in the underworld controlled by Yama the king.
The literary technique of Life and Death, along with that of Mo's other works, is reminiscent of the technique of Western classics such as Brave New World, Animal Farm, Gulliver's Travels, 1984 and the dystopian Fahrenheit 451.
Beneath the literary devices and stylized language, Mo chronicles the history of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution through a narrator sent back to his village as a donkey. The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize, said that many of Mo's works, including Life and Death, "have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society." The use of satire and fantasy gives Mo a virtual cushion against the government's wrath.
Having grown up under the brutality of Maoist extremism, Mo rejects, for example, the government's unforgiving one-child family planning program. That rejection can be found in several works, notably in his latest novel, Frogs.'
Mo's given name is Guan Moye. The pen name, Mo Yan, which he adopted while writing his first novel and while serving in the army, means "don't speak." During a forum last year at the University of California at Berkeley, he explained the name: "At that time in China, lives were not normal, so my father and mother told me not to speak outside. If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So I listened to them and did not speak."
The prize not only has introduced Mo's work to new readers worldwide, it may be transforming textbook publishing in China, at least for now. For the first time ever, for example, the Language and Culture Press under the Ministry of Education, which controls China's school publications, will add Mo's novella, A Transparent Carrot, to textbooks now being anthologized for high school students who take special elective courses. This move, according to the Beijing Times, means that some 25 million Chinese schoolchildren will be free to read Mo.
Most Americans condemn the kind of constraints placed on Mo and other Chinese writers. But before getting too smug, let us not forget our own suppression. Remember McCarthyism, from the 1940s to the mid 1960s, when thousands of American artists were routinely persecuted for reportedly showing traitorous sympathy for the Soviet Union?
And let us not forget the first few years following 9/11, when artists and journalists had to mind their words and images. And like the Chinese, we Americans have select groups — sacred cows — we dare not write about critically. Despite all of the talk about free expression, I suspect that we Americans are one security event away from yet another movement to suppress writers.
Mo's Nobel is forcing China's leaders to acknowledge in front of the world that good fiction disturbs people by bringing out their emotions, by forcing them to think differently and by giving them courage to challenge the status quo.
That is the real danger of good fiction: It transports individual readers beyond themselves and into the worlds of others who may be total strangers in faraway lands.