Mo Yan and Joseph Anton



If Mo Yan had chosen to live in a swanky hideout in the nowhere space offered as asylum, there would be much jubilation over his being awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead, he lives in China, was educated in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) school. He is the bad guy, not because he has books titled Big Breasts and Wide Hips and The Republic of Wine, but because he was part of a group of Chinese writers who helped compile Mao’s speeches for a special commemorative issue.

Human rights lawyer Teng Biao said, “On the political front, he is singing the same tune with an undemocratic regime. I think for him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is inappropriate. As an influential writer, he didn’t use his influence to speak up for intellectuals and political prisoners – instead he catered to the government’s interests by handwriting the speech.”

Was he doing it out of fear or a genuine loyalty to the once supreme leader who appears as a symbol of power and desertion, one aspect trailing the other like a scorpion biting its tail?

There are movements in the world that still use the Mao name. If indeed Mo is an establishment man, then why did the Nobel Committee choose him? Don’t they stick to the tried-and-tested western module with a touch of exotica? It is perhaps akin to accepting that Apple products are made in China.

While oppression in the world is something that needs exposure, why does international recognition for it matter? Have his writings made an impact on the society he writes about?

In a curious transposition, the Peace Prize two years ago went to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. (More in my CounterPunch piece on Nobel Dissonance) He dedicated the award to “all those lost souls who have sacrificed their lives in non-violent struggle for peace, democracy and freedom”, the reference being to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese army. Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye, was born in a village in Shandong. He wrote some of his works as a soldier of the PLA.

As I have not read him, except for bits and pieces that have now been made accessible, I shall rely on the idea of literature as pamphleteering. Is all anti-establishment writing truly breaking the shackles? Does it not follow its own ‘system’? The exile often has the advantage of distance and the romanticism associated with the fallen angel.

Mo is an insider, who strides two worlds, carrying a double baggage.  One of his books has been banned in China. He has been called vulgar. He writes about the world around him.

In Red Sorghum he spoke about the brutalities in rural China in the early years of the century. Is he using the past deliberately, so that his present and future are ensured? The PLA got the book banned, but it was made into a film that won an Oscar nomination and a Golden Bear at the German Film Festival; its English translation got him a Man Booker nomination.

Commentators have said that although he deals with sensitive issues he has managed to steer clear of rubbing the regime the wrong way. Why is acceptance by the west more legitimate than those by his government? He is living the life that others see as a cage. When he says, “I think writers write for their consciences, they write for their own true audiences, for their souls”, his isolation is complete. There is no escape route he seeks.

It is easy to dismiss a person for professing fealty to a system we as outsiders find reprehensible. But, how many supposedly free regimes are truly free? Don’t we have a situation where creativity begs solitude and ‘misery literature’ wallows in self-inflicted pain? Mo has said, “Loneliness and hunger were my fortunes of creation.” This is not a bombastic statement. His roots are in peasantry, and while the idea of someone toeing the party line may not appeal to our concept of expression, can we ignore the fact that the outsiders seek the patronage of fellow rebels, if not shrewd opponents of their origins?


As “Mumbai boy” Salman Rushdie said of Britain, “I am a knight of the realm and I feel deeply, deeply connected. I have lived in this country longer than I’ve lived anywhere and I am a citizen of this country. My children are English and both of their mothers were English. These are roots which are deeper than my roots in India.”

Joseph Anton – A Memoir lies near my bed table unfinished, a half-eaten apple turned brown.

That Rushdie has used the pseudonym he was forced to adopt when in hiding to tell his story is less about detachment, as some reviewers have suggested, and more to take liberties with the recounting. It could be fiction. It could be about someone else. It could be the man who got away. His felicity with the language makes you forget that he is recounting his story yet again. It is like a loop played out on TV channels, until you are drained or your eyes begin to sting. For a true reader, both might happen.

Rushdie’s supporters do not necessarily comprise of literary mavericks. They are riding the gravy cart where moral concern legitimises them. For example, the deliberate act of reading extracts from The Satanic Verses at a literary festival in India lacked the spontaneity of protest; it was a vulture-with-prey moment. It can pay rich dividends. Rushdie is the godfather, hunted and haunted, because he is in charge. This lends ‘Joseph Anton’ the spine of martyred megalomania.

If he let the dust settle, there would be no castles in the air, no waves to wash them away, no tragedy to hold up the shaky edifice of celebrity.  Regurgitation is reminiscence.


Mo Yan is a pen name that means “Don’t speak”. Imagine Faiz writing, “Khamosh reh ke lab quaid hai tere” (Stay silent for your words are caged) This is, of course, turning on its head the revolutionary Pakistani poet’s well-known work, “Bol, ke lab azaad hai tere” (Speak, for your lips/words are free). It is not about the standard prescription of freedom of expression, but the depth of burning oneself in the furnace and being able to recount it. The poem is self-exploration, not a demand for rights.

Is creative expression about expansionism? Would that not work as a totem? Must literature be obtuse and inaccessible? Or should it “gather ye rose buds while ye may”?

There is nothing like an independent award. Every committee has its credo. The Nobel Prize for Literature either goes for straight populism or the interestingly obscure.

Peter Englund, head of the Swedish Academy said of Mo: “He has such a unique way of writing. If you read half a page of Mo Yan you immediately recognise it as him.” I should assume they read more than that. Unique voices are rare to come by, but I am not sure if the praise by the Academy sounds awfully good when it states that his works “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Accolades for awards such as these sound like Linda Goodman personality tests, or even compatibility quotients. So, Mo is a bit like Marquez, a little like Faulkner, Lawrence, and Hemingway, not to forget magic realism, which is such an all-encompassing term. Writers, like most creative people, do stretch the boundaries of the factual, of truth. Without perception and perspective, creativity would be robotic reportage.

Careless encomiums reduce the writer to basic parameters. Why must the works be reminiscent of anyone? Because, those giving awards have a draft.  It is unfortunate that we are isolated from the literature of the world as much as we are from our own different regional flavours, except perhaps for Paulo Coelho who is like Deepak Chopra who is like Rumi in a blender.


Mo had said in a speech a few years ago, “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”

This might be seen as subtle, or it could well be someone who thinks it is fine to be part of the system. How can these two aspects depict the landscape of the dispossessed? This is quite interesting, for the dispossessed possess a landscape that can in fact be legitimately depicted.

Does a writer need to convey just one train of thought and one part of society? Is the political environment relevant to the writing? Is the writing more important than the ideas? Is the influence of those ideas more important than the ideas themselves?

Do any of these bring about change? We cannot speak of actual change, for the dynamics of social behaviour and political movements are not dependent on literary inputs for reforms. While many literary works have affected us individually, we cannot name even a few that have altered the way a society functions.

Writers may take their raw material from the world or the way they see the world, but it does not mean that it is the world as it is. For, the world is never as it is.

Just as reminiscences are not shoe boxes.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/

November 30, 2015
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