The Quiet Man of Chinese Letters

Should we condemn Mo Yan for failing to speak out?

Mo Yan, the first non-imprisoned, non-émigré Chinese to win a Nobel Prize, straddles the line between critical and Communist Party success. His books are brilliant; his prose trembles with vivacity and his characters are astonishingly self-aware as they wallow in their own excess. A Ph.D. student in liquor studies falls in love with his mother-in-law. Cadres braise human babies and eat them at banquets. A peasant rapes a woman, marries her, and then improves her liquor distillery by pissing into the batch. Existentially stressed, they eat, drink, and screw, as the politics that shapes their lives lurks in the background.

China's Nobel laureate selected Mo Yan as a pen name; it literally means "Don't Speak." He doesn't. Like the characters he depicts in his novels, Mo does not resist the Communist Party's control over his public life. He is vice-chairman of the government-run Chinese Writers Association; in the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, Mo joined the official delegation in boycotting events in which dissident writers appeared. ("I had no choice," he later said in an interview.) This year, he participated in a book project in which he hand-copied a speech Mao Zedong gave decreeing that writing must serve the Communist Party.

Some Chinese liberals and dissidents criticized the selection; one prominent writer and democracy activist, called Mo a man with "no principles." In a news conference after winning the prize, Mo said he hoped Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently imprisoned in China, "can regain his freedom very soon" but added that if freed "he can study his politics and his social system," seemingly asking dissident Liu to rejoin the fold.

Should we condemn Mo for failing to speak out for injustice? Maybe. Liu Xiaobo's limitations as a writer didn't detract from his peace prize; do Mo's politics disqualify his works of literature? Mo's characters, perhaps modeled after himself, are unable to speak out: They are too distracted, too manic -- often either famished or bursting, liquor-starved or raucously drunk. In his novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, a nurse survives the famine of the Great Leap Forward by trading sex for steamed buns. We see light haloing her face, puffy from starvation, "as if coating it with the blood of a dog." Mo appears as a character in The Republic of Wine as a feckless author who "can't believe" he drank himself to death. The book's drunken anti-hero Ding Gou'er can't keep his appetites in check enough solve the corruption case he's ordered to investigate. He may have munched on a cooked baby at a banquet, and he sees a group of children and thinks of them as "just like a skewer of roast lamb, basted and seasoned."

Mo knows the excess and depravation that instability brings. Born in 1955, he was a child at the start of the Great Leap Forward, one of the darkest chapters of China's history. In a 1997 autobiographical essay entitled "I Can't Forget About Eating," Mo recalls, in almost jocular manner, the famine that swept China from 1959-1961, in which tens of millions of people starved to death. "The best thing to do when someone died was to drag him out and let the dogs first eat him ... this was a golden age for dogs." Mo was one of the children foraging for insects to eat, with "swollen bellies and legs like sticks, and their brains were enlarged with queer ideas."

Mo's characters are still stuck in this oral stage: Their lives revolve around food, liquor, violence, and sex. In Garlic Ballads, peasants makes love in the garlic fields and sing songs in praising garlic; even a lightbulb is described as "shaped like a head of garlic." In Republic of Wine, one character states that "people who are strangers to liquor are incapable of talking about literature." In Big Breasts and Wide Hips, the narrator, even as a teenager, receives his sustenance from breast milk and cannot move beyond the body. Sex-starved, he ends up imprisoned for screwing a corpse.

Mo's fiction is rich because it subtly captures the compromises and monstrosities of Communist China. And perhaps Mo, in his silence, fears what happened to Ding, who suffers a very MoYanian ending: After finally deciding to really investigate what's happening around him, he gets drunk and confusedly shoots two people. Stumbling around, he spots a ship on which he sees a group of officials about to feast on a human baby. "I protest!" Ding screams. He rushes towards the boat, only to stumble into an open-air toilet, whose refuse he compares to "warm, vile porridge." As he sinks, "the sacred panoply of ideals, justice, respect, honor, and love" accompanies Ding to the bottom.



Worst. Prize. Ever.

Has the Nobel become a parody of itself?

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union Friday, former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjorn Jagland, the hapless award committee chairman, said: "We want to focus on what has been achieved in Europe in terms of peace and reconciliation.… It is a message to Europe to secure what they have achieved … and not let the continent go into disintegration again because it means the emergence of extremism and nationalism." A prize, in other words, awarded for future efforts as much as past achievements.

And so the descent of the Nobel Peace Prize into parody or, failing that, pastiche continues. Plainly, this honor awarded in this year of all years is little more than a sympathy note designed to offer some cheer to the eurozone in a time of perpetual, irresolvable crisis. How much this will encourage Greeks or Spaniards or the Irish is, of course, a matter of some doubt. "Never mind the misery; feel the humanity" is pretty meager consolation in these astringent economic times. "Forget your woes, Stavros; you've a tiny share of a Nobel Prize." This will make all the difference.

So the absurdity is one thing. But there is also a plausible argument to be made that the EU is now the biggest driver of political extremism on the continent. The great gulf between Northern and Southern Europe widens by the day. As it does, resentment increases as the efforts to save the eurozone inflict ever greater pain upon the feckless, unhappy countries on the Mediterranean littoral. The protests against German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Greece this week could be but a modest harbinger of things to come. Like never before in its history, the EU is under pressure. It is easy to see how it might crack or explode.

In truth, this is the kind of award you make when you can't think of anything more useful or any more plausible recipient. It belongs in the tradition of other institutional Nobel Peace Prize winners such as the United Nations, the Red Cross, and Médecins Sans Frontières. Each of these organizations -- yes, even the U.N. -- is admirable enough, but none can be said to have thwarted war on a regular basis. In its way, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is really little better than the panel assembled by Time magazine to award that publication's "Person of the Year" bauble. At least the Norwegians on the peace-prize committee haven't awarded it to "You," as Time did a few years ago. At least not yet.

Not that awards to individuals necessarily cut a better class of mustard. Barack Obama's 2009 prize was further beyond satire than even Henry Kissinger's 1973 Nobel. Never before had the award been bestowed just for turning up or, more accurately, for not being George W. Bush. If Obama's was the most egregious prize in recent memory, that awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was little better because, no matter how worthy their respective efforts, it was difficult to discern what this had to do with matters of war and peace.

Say this much for the 2012 prize: At least there has been peace in Western Europe these past 60 years. How much credit the institutions of European economic and latterly political cooperation deserve for this blessed state of affairs is an interesting question. But the idea that the EU is a democracy-spreader is weaker than it looks. It is true that Southern (Portugal, Spain, Greece) and Eastern Europe have embraced democracy like never before in their histories, and it's true as well that the carrot of EU membership and assorted other benefits has played a role in this process. The EU's allure has surely played a part in moving the former Yugoslavia toward a more peaceful, civilized future -- and even in nudging poor, unwanted Turkey toward democratic reforms.

But it might also be observed that other parts of the world have moved to more democratic arrangements without the incentive of EU membership. Latin America and parts of Asia and even Africa have shifted to democracy, so there is at least a plausible argument that the EU is given more credit than it merits for Europe's peaceful embrace of the ballot box. Might it have happened even without the EU? Possibly.

It is true that war in Western Europe is more inconceivable now than at any point in the continent's history as a series of organized states. The EU has played a part, though not necessarily a dominant one, in helping Europe reach this unusually happy state of being. France and Germany, antagonists for so long, can hardly imagine fighting one another again. Again, the EU -- which began life as a series of coal and steel agreements signed by Bonn and Paris -- has helped end centuries of mutual suspicion and hostility. But it might also simply be the case that the horrors of the 20th century convinced even the most bellicose German or Frenchman that further conflicts between their respective countries could only end in even greater calamity. At long last, we reached the wars to end all wars.

Perhaps the Norwegians are actually great humorists. There is a certain gallows amusement to this award being given to this organization at this time. For many of its inhabitants, the EU or, more precisely, the eurozone, has become a suffocating monster squeezing the life from economies with little enough room to breathe as it is. In Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and, perhaps soon enough, Italy too, this award can only be seen as a comedian's black joke.

In the end, of course, the Nobel Peace Prize is treated with greater reverence or importance than it really deserves. For all its history and prestige, it is, in the end, only a matter of good intentions. And while noble and better than some alternatives, good intentions have rarely been enough in international affairs. This, of course, is true of the European Union too, so in this respect at least, perhaps this silly award is fitting after all.

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