Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Literature from (or of) China by its Nobel Laureates

First, I read Soul Mountain. Then, I read The Good Earth. Now, I am in the midst of Red Sorghum. The first is by Gao Xingjian (b. 1940). The second and, perhaps, the most famous was penned by Pearl Buck in 1931; it won a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. This year's Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan (b. 1955). Each of these books are, arguably, the best known works of three Nobel Laureates for Literature. Mr. Gao is Chinese born and now a citizen of France. Ms. Buck was an American of European extraction, but raised in China by missionary parents. Mr. Yan is a citizen of the People's Republic of China and was born in Shandong, the province where Confucius lived so long ago.

To my way of thinking, Soul Mountain is the best of these three books. The New York Times review describes the richness and success of this inventive piece. "His 81 chapters are an often bewildering and considerably uneven congeries of forms: vignettes, travel writing, ethnographic jottings, daydreams, nightmares, recollections, conversations, lists of dynasties and archeological [sic] artifacts, erotic encounters, legends, current history, folklore, political, social and ecological commentary, philosophical epigrams, vivid poetical evocation and much else." It also took me the longest amount of time to read. Dense and esoteric, it needs to be chewed slowly.

For a pithy description of Buck, read the Foreign Affairs book review of Spurlings's biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. That her book needs to be defended still as more than just the racist memoir of a missionary's daughter is sad. It is surely a great work, but our dissatisfaction with it now should be, and is, that it is a period piece with little remaining relevance to current day China.

For an accurate portrayal of the diseased language of Mo Yan, read Anna Sun's critique. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College, who has been a McDowell Colony fellow in fiction.

Mo Yan bashing has become a popular sport and I am not eager to join the ranks. Ai Weiwei, the loudmouth artist-dissident who continues to suffer under house arrest in Beijing, went even further than Salman Rushdie, who stopped at calling Mr. Mo a "patsy." Mr. Ai said, “Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature. It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award.”

I would say that Mo Yan is not a patsy; he is an apparatchik and employee of the PLA Cultural Affairs Department. It is impractical or even silly to want him to be different than he is.

While a bit more subtle than the boosterism, propagandizing, and censorship facially apparent in My Husband Puyi: Last Emperor of China, the book that I am in the middle of is not subtle or graceful. His "hallucinatory realism", which is how literary critics brand his non-chronological storytelling, has none of the artfulness of Gao Xingjian's meandering novel. Still, it is a worthwhile read. Why? Because it is a riveting, action-packed, made for the movies drama.

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