2012 Nobel Prize: Literature


It is literature day for the Nobel Prize … not strictly science, but still perhaps interesting to note who has been spotlighted for crafting and shaping human thoughts, dreams, and aspirations … all carefully massaged to inspire or provoke. To use the words of Nobel himself, a prize for … “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

Remember now, this is not any award, it is the most prestigious award available – period. However, this one is slightly different, while The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences does Physics and Chemistry, it is the Swedish Academy that grants the Literature prize.

So who has won it in the past? Well here is the list. There are indeed a few names I recognise such as Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, William Faulkner, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, Ernest Miller Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, William Golding, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter, and Doris Lessing. Do you recognise those names?  hopefully you do.

There are however a couple of rather disturbing thoughts that naturally bubble to the surface when faced with a list of very inspirational laureates …

  1. There are many names I do not recognise, and so I now begin to appreciate that there is much I have missed, for these are not just the pedestrian scribblings of the hurried masses, but rather they are works that have risen above the crowd and contain crystallized thoughts that warranted a Nobel award.
  2. For those names that I do recognise, I might indeed know the name, but can I truly articulate or recall their well-honed works that merited  such public acclaim?

Life is short, and so while you and I still breathe perhaps we should consider grasping a segment of time to bask in the stream of such worthy words, we might learn something new, or see things in a different light. While we cannot ever consider the thought of digesting everything, we can perhaps tap into the best of the best.

I should also add one more key observation, the list of Nobel awards is not the definitive list of the worlds best literature, because by its very nature such an award can only ever be opinion, there is no definitive right answer here. Think about it now, what about all those who never won but perhaps should have. That is a list that includes Leo TolstoyAnton ChekhovÉmile ZolaJorge Luis BorgesMarcel ProustEzra PoundJames JoyceAugust StrindbergSimon VestdijkJohn UpdikeArthur MillerChinua Achebe and Mark Twain. None of them won, but were indeed truly in this top-tier (in my opinion).

OK, so on with the details, who has won?

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012

Mo Yan

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 is awarded to the Chinese writer Mo Yan

who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.

Now, I’m betting that your reaction is the same as mine … basically “Who?”. OK, here are his details.

Mo Yan (a pseudonym for Guan Moye) was born in 1955 and grew up in Gaomi in Shandong province in north-eastern China. His parents were farmers. As a twelve-year-old during the Cultural Revolution he left school to work, first in agriculture, later in a factory. In 1976 he joined the People’s Liberation Army and during this time began to study literature and write. His first short story was published in a literary journal in 1981. His breakthrough came a few years later with the novella Touming de hong luobo (1986, published in French as Le radis de cristal 1993).

In his writing Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth. This is apparent in his novel Hong gaoliang jiazu (1987, in English Red Sorghum 1993). The book consists of five stories that unfold and interweave in Gaomi in several turbulent decades in the 20th century, with depictions of bandit culture, the Japanese occupation and the harsh conditions endured by poor farm workers. Red Sorghum was successfully filmed in 1987, directed by Zhang Yimou. The novel Tiantang suantai zhi ge (1988, in English The Garlic Ballads 1995) and his satirical Jiuguo (1992, in English The Republic of Wine 2000) have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.

Fengru feitun (1996, in English Big Breasts and Wide Hips 2004) is a broad historical fresco portraying 20th-century China through the microcosm of a single family. The novel Shengsi pilao (2006, in English Life and Death are Wearing Me Out  2008) uses black humour to describe everyday life and the violent transmogrifications in the young People’s Republic, while Tanxiangxing (2004, to be published in English as Sandalwood Death 2013) is a story of human cruelty in the crumbling Empire. Mo Yan’s latest novel Wa (2009, in French Grenouilles 2011) illuminates the consequences of China’s imposition of a single-child policy.

Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition. In addition to his novels, Mo Yan has published many short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.

Now you are faced with a choice, will you applaud and quickly forget, or will you pause and perhaps read something that you might not have normally read … ever. No, I’m not suggesting you rush out and learn Chinese, the following works of his are available in English …

Explosions and Other Stories / edited by Janice Wickeri. – Hong Kong : Research Centre for Translations, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1991

Red Sorghum : a Novel of China / translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. – New York : Viking, 1993. – Translation of Hong gaoliang jiazu

The Garlic Ballads : a Novel / translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. – New York : Viking, 1995. – Translation of Tiantang suantai zhi ge

The Republic of Wine / translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. – New York : Arcade Pub., 2000. – Translation of Jiuguo

Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh / translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. – New York : Arcade Pub., 2001. – Translation of Shifu yuelai yue youmo

Big Breasts and Wide Hips : a Novel / translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. – New York : Arcade Pub., 2004. – Translation of Fengru feitun

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out : a Novel / translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. – New York : Arcade Pub., 2008. – Translation of Shengsi pilao

Change / translated by Howard Goldblatt. – London : Seagull, 2010. – Translation of Bian

Pow / translated by Howard Goldblatt. – London : Seagull, 2013

Sandalwood Death / translated by Howard Goldblatt. – Norman : Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2013. – Translation of Tanxiangxing

Selected Stories by Mo Yan / translated by Howard Goldblatt. – Hong Kong : The Chinese University Press,
20-?. – (Announced but not yet published)

So go on then, do something different, join me now by picking one, then pop on over to amazon and order a copy.

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