WHEN the Swedish Academy called the Chinese writer Mo Yan to tell him he had won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the novelist reportedly told them, in what must be one of the most poignant Nobel reactions in memory, that he was “overjoyed and terrified.”
It isn’t hard to imagine why a writer who chose “Mo Yan” as his pen name would find fear at the heart of such a happy occasion. The name, meaning “don’t speak,” was his parents’ admonition when they sent him out to play in the Maoist 1950s and ’60s. Half a century later, Mao’s party, stripped of ideology but intact in its machinery, remains in charge, and at least 40 of Mo Yan’s less circumspect contemporaries are locked in Chinese prisons.
As a novelist, Mo Yan has dipped his toe in the waters of official taboos, but he also has credited state censorship with spawning the formal innovations that helped garner him the Nobel Prize last week. And throughout his life he has done little to jeopardize his status as one of the country’s most honored writers; he is currently vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers Association.
In 2009, when the People’s Republic of China was the official guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mo Yan was part of a delegation that boycotted events that included Chinese dissident writers. More recently, he was one of around 100 writers to pay tribute to Mao by hand-copying a passage from Mao’s 1942 Yan’an talk on literature and art — a speech that the dissident Liu Binyan once described as boiling down to the injunction “Writers should ‘extol the bright side of life’ and ‘not expose’ the darkness.”