Mo Yan’s Nobel Lecture kept off the usual grandiloquence heard on these occasions and focused on the fascinating craft of storytelling

The human condition is at the very heart of the work of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Chinese novelist Mo Yan. And his Nobel lecture on December 7 was no exception.

“Two hours ago, the wife of the general secretary of the Swedish Academy had a baby girl. It is the beginning of a beautiful story,” began Mo Yan. And throughout his talk, entitled “Storyteller”, his emphasis was on how he told stories, the craft of making a story come alive for the reader.

Many Nobel Prize winners are tempted to go didactic, make grandiloquent statements in the belief that that is what is expected of them. Not this modest man who has retained his peasant roots and forgotten none of his family’s poverty or his own early struggles.

It was his mother, he said, who did the most for him, showing him many kindnesses; and it was to repay her and make her life a little happier and liveable, that he began telling her stories. His mother, he said “is the person most on my mind at this moment.”

Born into a family of poor farmers in China’s eastern Shandong Province, Mo Yan was awarded the prize for his “hallucinatory realism” that mixes folk tales, history and contemporary life. In his speech which was simple, direct and unpretentious — qualities that mark his work — the author discussed some of his best known works such as Frog, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out and of course The Transparent Carrot, in which the protagonist, a young boy, has to bear immense suffering. He said the essence of his soul was in that boy.

“I feel one should be humble in daily life but when it comes to literary creation, then one should follow one’s instinct and take control,” he said. He alluded to authors like William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez who he said were early influences.

The greatest challenge for any writer, Mo Yan said, was writing novels about difficult social realities. “In writing about the darker aspects of society there is a danger that emotions and anger allow politics to suppress literature,” he said.

Mo Yan’s English-language translator Howard Goldblatt said the speech had diverse elements but was essentially a message from the heart. “It was very personal in that it dealt with many of his novels in detail, and all his work as a reflection of his values and ideals, while touching briefly on the controversies surrounding his selection.”

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