On October 10, the New York Times reported on the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Chinese writer Mo Yan (莫言). As might be expected for positive coverage of this momentous event by a respected American newspaper, In China, a Writer Finds a Deep Well has quickly been translated, re-packaged and served up to the masses in the October 13, 2012 print edition of Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) as 美报细述莫言作品特点.
Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.” It targets working-class men over 30, many of whom still prefer to get their daily news fix from the state-run TV or newspapers.
As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version published and distributed throughout China, I
cross out the English words that were deleted when the article was translated into Chinese, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can better see how Cankao’s editors “package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.
In this case, three specific types of content were deleted when the NY Times article was rendered for the masses:
- Any hint that Mo Yan is a “dissident” writer
- The sole mention of Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese writer—not Mo Yan, actually—to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature
- References to the excesses of corrupt officials that occasionally people Mo Yan’s fictional world
In China, a Writer Finds a Deep Well
By Richard Bernstein
[“Brilliantly Realistic and Darkly Funny”]
[US Newspaper Details Features of Mo Yan’s Works]
In his brilliantly realistic and darkly funny short story “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh,” Mo Yan, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, portrays a model [typical] worker, a shifu, or craftsman, from northeast China who is laid off at the factory where he has one month to go before his retirement. After using up all of his money getting medical treatment, the devastated man, Ding Shikou, or Ten Mouth Ding, discovers the shell of an abandoned bus near a cemetery at the edge of a lake.
Ding had just before noted that you have to pay to enter the public toilets in his city, which, a friend tells him, is all right since otherwise “lower-class people like us would never have the privilege of relieving ourselves in such a high-class place,” and this gives him the brilliant idea of transforming the abandoned bus into a little love nest, charging young couples in heat and no place to go hourly rates for its use.
The story, like most of Mr. Mo’s work, is reminiscent of a comment once made by the dissenting Soviet [Russian] writer Vladimir Voinovich that in his country “reality and satire are the same.” In his [works] half dozen or so novels and story collections, the prolific, fanciful, unrestrained, sometimes outrageous [outraged] Mr. Mo has created a universe full of earthy and craggy characters all of whom are battered, bruised, almost crushed by the undignified outrages of ordinary life.
Or, as Mr. Mo himself succinctly described his Buddhist-like frame of reference, speaking at a Sino-American cultural [literary] conference in Berkeley, Calif., last year, “As long as humans live, there is pain.” But, describing his literary philosophy, he added, “I think most readers would prefer to read humorous sentences about a painful life.”
Humorous is one [of the characteristics of] way to describe Mo Yan’s sentences [writings], and no doubt a certain amused distance makes it easier to take in his mostly rural Chinese universe, its unfairness, its casual violence, its stench, its tragedies, its Kafkaesque frustrations. But one senses, as with Mr. Voinovich, a caustic fury lurking just beneath the surface of his stories of ordinary Chinese lives, most of them lived where Mr. Mo himself grew up, in northern Shandong Province, where, as he put it in a preface to one collection, “the people struggled to keep death from the door, with little to eat and rags for clothes.”
Mr. Mo, daring as he is and devastating as his close, concrete examination of real conditions may be, is not a dissident, or he’s not deemed to be in China. At least one of his books has been banned at times, but mostly he can be read in his own country, unlike China’s other literary Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian whose sexually charged novels are banned. And yet Mr. Mo doesn’t hold back when it comes to the Chinese bureaucracy, its petty privileges and his characters’ confrontations with it.
In “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh” (the title story of its collection), the city’s vice mayor for industry shows up at the gate of Ding’s factory driving a black Audi. When, in a gesture of false sympathy, he holds out his hand, Ding, who gets around in “a 1960s black and obstinate, clunky Grand Defense bicycle,” notes its “softness … like dough.” When Ding goes to the municipal office, responding to the vice mayor’s invitation to come see him any time, he is thrown into the street by a nasty guard at the gate.
Similarly, in the novel “Garlic Ballads” novel set in an ironically named Paradise County, a village’s cast of truculent peasants is ordered by officialdom to plant only one crop, garlic, and then those same officials, having enriched themselves with fees and taxes, announce that the warehouse is full, so they’ll buy no more of the harvest.
But this battle between little people [minor characters] and capricious authority [officials] does not fully capture Mr. Mo’s [Mo Yan’s] books — not his first novel, [he also has] “Red Sorghum” (made into a movie by Zhang Yimou), nor his more recent [and] “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” a sweeping portrayal of his country since Mao Zedong’s 1949 seizure of power, which a New York Times reviewer called “wildly visionary and creative.”
These novels are very different. As Mr. Mo’s [Mo Yan’s] adroit translator Howard Goldblatt put it in an e-mail: “If you like Poe, you’ll love the forthcoming ‘Sandalwood Death’; if you’re more Rabelaisian, ‘The Republic of Wine’ will appeal, and if you’re fond of a fabulist, I recommend ‘Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.’ ”
But at the center of all of Mr. Mo’s work to date are the characters themselves, the very flavorful, raunchy, violence-prone, cruel, obstinately individualistic, all-too-human people who, in the end, get a bit of consolation, even some tattered remnants of victory, in the ingenious facts of their survival. Contrary to the title of the story of Ten Mouth Ding, they won’t do anything for a laugh, but a little laughter is just about all they expect.