Originally published on Rue89, 21/11/2007.
Mo Yan is probably one of the most important Chinese writers today, certainly a possible “Nobel”. The release of “Joy” allows us to understand better his world. He is very close to his hero, nicknamed Yongli, “Eternal Happiness”.
Son of poor peasants in Shandong as the author, Yongli dreams of joining university. “Think a little, what are the benefits of being a peasant? … As long as we build a road, a sports hall in the province, a train station in the district, a school , the farmer has to pay … as surely as wool grows on the backs of sheep! His only way out is to pass the exam; his parents and his relatives will then also benefit” .
His repeated failures will isolate him in his village, his school, his family; he even finds out that his mother is begging in order to finance another try, he then decided to choose a tragic end and the eternal joy … We are far away from the classical topic of exams in Chinese literature, the novel is full of peasant culture, prosaic references, smells, animals, plants …
We are far from large historical Mo Yan sagas, full of action, sound and fury; this novel is a little secret, a personal adventure through the great topics of rural life: the violence of taxation, family planning and forced sterilizations, the thugs of the village head … Corruption and low power supply in the village are less important than issues of geomancy and the lay out of the tomb of his father; the wrong positioning of the tomb can perhaps explain his failures…
Mo Yan has been translated in France as from 1990 with “The Clan of Sorghum” (Actes Sud), a novel followed by the film by Zhang Yimou ” Red Sorghum “, which was a great success and won a Golden award at the Berlin festival. Twelve books followed with the efforts of publishers like Le Seuil and Philippe Picquier, the French reader enjoys a priviledge compared with the English speaking world!
Guan Moye, with the pen name of Mo Yan (which means “do not tell”), was born in 1955 in Gaomi in an area of Shandong, which is a central reference in his work; he lived there twenty years. He suffered from hunger during the period of the “Great Leap Forward (1959-1961), was kicked out from school during the Cultural Revolution. He managed to join the army, an important exam for him, as for another major Chinese writer, Ha Jin, who lives in the United States. The army allowed him to go to University and then he started writing in 1981.
A waterfall of words, a highly evocative and creative atmosphere, these are the qualities of great novels by Mo Yan who sometimes does not shy away from the sordid or vulgarity. Sometimes the composition is so complex (“Beautiful breasts, shapely buttocks”) that the American translator, Howard Goldblatt, with the consent of the author, made several cuts and reorganized chapters!
Mo Yan, who is a member of the Chinese Communist Party, has always fought for his independence and his conflicts with the censorship demonstrates how absurd such a proces is : “The Republic of Wine”, his most devastating novel on corruption has not been banned! After being awarded a prize, “Big breasts and wide hips” was banned and then re-released without cuts. Within the system, this colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, remains a free man.
► “La Joie”, translated by Mary Laureillard.Editions Philippe Picquier 2007, 16,50 €.