Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, a somewhat unexpected choice by a prize committee that has favored European authors in recent years.
The Swedish Academy, which selects the winners of the prestigious award, praised Mo’s “hallucinatoric realism,” saying it “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”
Peter Englund, the academy’s permanent secretary, said the academy had contacted Mo before the announcement.
“He said he was overjoyed and scared,” Englund said.
Though Mo, 57, is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel literature prize, he’s not the first Chinese.
A Chinese emigre to France, Gao Xingjian, won in 2000 for his absurdist dramas and inventive fiction, especially the novel Soul Mountain. His works are laced with criticisms of China’s communist government and have been banned in China.
When Gao won, the communist leadership disowned the prize. Mo’s award is likely to be more warmly greeted in Beijing.
Born Guan Moye in 1955 to a farming family in eastern Shandong province, Mo chose his penname while writing his first novel. Garrulous by nature, Mo has said the name, meaning “don’t speak,” was intended to remind him to hold his tongue lest he get himself into trouble and to mask his identity since he began writing while serving in the army.
His breakthrough came with novel ‘Red Sorghum’ published in 1987. Set in a small village, like much of his fiction, ‘Red Sorghum’ is an earthy tale of love and peasant struggles set against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese war. It was turned into a film that won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988, marked the directing debut of Zhang Yimou and boosted Mo’s popularity.
Mo writes of visceral pleasures and existential quandaries and tends to create vivid, mouthy characters. While his early work stuck to a straightforward narrative structure enlivened by vivid descriptions and raunchy humor, Mo has become more experimental, toying with different narrators and embracing a freewheeling style often described as ‘Chinese magical realism.’
European authors had won four of the past five awards, with last year’s prize going to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.
As with the other Nobel Prizes, the prize is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.
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