Two Views on Nobel Laureate Mo Yan: A Controversial Choice for this Year's Literature Prize

The decision last week to award the Nobel Prize in literature to Chinese author Mo Yan has not been the cause for universal celebration. Dissidents are criticizing the choice. In interviews with SPIEGEL, award-winning Chinese writer Liao Yiwu says he is "stunned" by the choice, and German novelist Martin Walser argues the recipient's work is "extremely critical and very open".

Chinese writer Mo Yan is the controversial pick for this year's Nobel Zoom
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Chinese writer Mo Yan is the controversial pick for this year's Nobel

Since the announcement on Thursday that the Chinese author Mo Yan, 57, has been selected as this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm, a debate has been raging over the Nobel Committee's decision. The literary importance of Mo Yan is vaunted by many of his fans, but what detractors view as an uncritical and submissive attitude toward the state power in Beijing has been harshly condemned by dissidents. In interviews with SPIEGEL, Chinese author Liao Yiwu, 54, the recipient of this year's Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, criticizes his contemporary. Meanwhile, German novelist Martin Walser, 85, gives Mo Yan's work the highest praise.


SPIEGEL: How do you feel about writer Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Liao Yiwu: I am stunned. To me it is like a slap in the face. Two years ago I was on the train from Berlin to Frankfurt when I heard that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to my close friend, the writer Liu Xiaobo, who is imprisoned in China. I was delighted -- to me it was confirmation that universal values and a moral code do exist, and that the point of the Nobel Prize is to encourage writers to stand up for this moral code. Last Thursday I was once again on the train from Berlin to Frankfurt when I heard that the Nobel Prize for Literature had gone to Mo Yan. He is a state poet. I am utterly bewildered. Do these universal values not exist after all? Are they so arbitrary that a Nobel Prize can be awarded to someone behind bars and stripped of their rights one year and another year to someone in the service of the very people who put people behind bars and strip them of their rights?

SPIEGEL: Do you not make a distinction between a peace prize and a literature prize?

Liao: To me the truth comes first and then the literature. We in China are dealing with a dictatorial system and we writers have to take a stance on it. What stance does Mo Yan take? He is an example of how a regime can influence writers. He contributed to a volume of calligraphy that was a tribute to Mao. To me that shows that the truth is not his first priority.

SPIEGEL: Do you know him personally?

Liao: Yes, he once visited Chengdu and we met there. After that there were a number of opportunities for us to meet but he always avoided me. He knows that he represents a superficial China, one that can seem very glossy. Whereas I stand for a grassroots China, its dregs, its dirt.

SPIEGEL: Mo Yan might be relatively conformist but his work is not uncritical.

Liao: When push comes to shove, Mo Yan retreats to his world of artistry. That way he places himself above the truth. I don't like that. If you are going to stick to the truth then you need to keep your distance from the Chinese government and indeed to any form of politics, including the politics of democratic countries. When China was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair three years ago, Mo Yan was part of the official delegation. He was a symbol of the Communist Party of China's culture. He does not keep his distance.

SPIEGEL: The awarding of the prize to Mo Yan can nonetheless be seen as a call to examine China. Is that not itself of value?

Liao: No, it is not. What has happened is very damaging, a woeful example of the West's fuzzy morals. Chinese officials feel vindicated in the way they have treated and continue to treat dissidents by such awards. And that is terrible for the people who suffer under them. You have no idea how much the news has angered my friends in China. One musician wants to organize a protest. They are upset and asking whether the West is not in fact an extension of the Chinese system.

SPIEGEL: You yourself were awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade this year. That sent a different message to the Chinese establishment -- that it needs to reconsider the way it treats the disenfranchised.

Liao: Yes, party officials were extremely annoyed and that goes to show how effective a prize can be. I am pinning my hopes on readers, civil society, people who are seeking the truth. I have been living in Germany for one year and my impression is that people here are on a quest for the truth, they have come to terms with the injustices of the past, there are memorial centers and remembrance projects. Germany is my spiritual home.

Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer. Continue to the next page to read the interview with Martin Walser.

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    Liao Yiwu, 54, is a Chinese author, artist and dissident, who was recently awarded the 2012 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Yiwu, who now lives in Berlin, spent four years in a labor camp after writing a poem critical of China's Communist regime on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre. After leaving prison, the Sichuan native began recording the stories of those at the bottom rungs of Chinese society including prostitutes and janitors and published those accounts in "Corpse Walker," a collection of stories. For years Yiwu remained closely watched by Chinese authorities and was even pulled off a plane on his way to attend a literary festival in Germany. In 2010 Yiwu finally fled to Germany by way of Vietnam. His memoir, "For a Song and a Hundred Songs," chronicles his time in prison. It was published in Germany in 2011 and will be released in the United States in 2013.
About
  • Martin Walser, 85, is a German author whose works deal with the failure in life and the inner conflict of men. Walser was born in Southern Germany in 1927 and near the end World War II served as a soldier in the German Wehrmacht. After the war he went back to his school studying philosophy and ultimately received a Ph.D in literature. Walser started his career as a writer in radio and he began publishing novels in 1957. His works won both popular and critical acclaim, and in 1998 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt. Despite his success Walser remains a controversial figure in German public life for questioning Germany's constant remembrance of World War II victims calling the monuments and other memorials a "continuous show of our shame."


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