WHEN THE NOBEL PRIZE in Literature is awarded, commentators often wonder if it was given to recognize the quality of the author's writing or for other reasons: jockeying within the committee, a desire to acknowledge a particular genre or style’s importance, the wish to make a political statement — or all of the above.
These questions will doubtless be raised about Mo Yan, the latest literary Laureate, but issues specific to China will also come up, such as how he compares to previous winners with ties to that country, like Pearl Buck, who wrote stories set there, and Gao Xingjian, the Chinese writer who won the prize after leaving his country to live and write in France.
To uncover answers to some of these questions and introduce — or reintroduce — Los Angeles Review of Books readers to Mo Yan, whose previous most famous Western exposure was as the author of the story that served as the basis for Zhang Yimou's film Red Sorghum (1987), we turned to Sabina Knight. She teaches Chinese and Comparative Literature at Smith College, and her specialty is contemporary Chinese fiction. A fellow in the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations' Public Intellectuals Program, Knight is the author of The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (Harvard, 2006), and, most recently, Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, a lively and wide-ranging work published by Oxford University Press earlier this year.
Jeff Wasserstrom: What was your first thought when you heard Mo Yan was this year's winner of the prize?
Sabina Knight: My first thought was “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” Mo Yan is a genuine, decent, warm-hearted human being.
JW: Do you talk about him in your new book — and, if so, where does this discussion come in and what aspects of his career do you emphasize?
SK: My new book only briefly discusses Mo Yan because it spans 3,000 years of Chinese literature in just 137 small-format pages. But I do mention Mo Yan to illustrate how post-Mao writers exhume traumatic memories of the Cultural Revolution, by depicting historical periods before 1949. My example is Mo Yan’s magisterial Red Sorghum, a novel made up of five overlapping novellas in which the narrator imagines his grandparents’ experiences during the Japanese invasion of their village.
I treat Mo Yan’s work at more length in my earlier book, The Heart of Time. His works are among the most memorable of contemporary world fiction because they depict characters that assume real choices in deciding their lives, even as they succumb to powerful forces of instinct, sexuality, and history. One of Mo Yan’s most important themes is whether responsibility for evil lies within individuals or in forces beyond their control, such as fate, lust, or history, forces that can be destructive, but also potentially liberating.