The Chinese writer Mo Yan collected the Nobel Prize for Literature last night. In his acceptance lecture, he reiterated his view that a degree of censorship is ‘necessary’ in the world, and compared it to airport security.
The comparison is utterly base. Airport security is a fleeting restriction on personal liberty; a social contract entered into freely by making the decision to travel by air. Censorship is a legal mechanism imposed on entire societies by a self-appointed oligarchy that maintains itself by persecuting and prosecuting individual transgressors. Mo Yan’s logic is as flawed as his apology is malignant.
Having said that, his enthusiasm for censorship was quite restrained on this occasion: he told Granta recently that censorship benefits creativity by forcing artists to ‘inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world.’
When I last wrote about Mo Yan I said:
‘If one is feeling generous, this attitude [to censorship] recalls a novel like The Master and Margarita.’
But I’m not feeling so generous today, and I’m inclined to agree with Salman Rushdie’s view that Mo Yan is a ‘patsy of the regime’. (Rushdie’s remarks followed Mo Yan declining to sign a petition for the release of Liu Xiabo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident writer.) It is, of course, extraordinary to defy tyranny; but, even so, the Nobel ceremony was an opportunity for Mo Yan to be courageous on behalf of those who want to be free. Plainly, he sees his duty lying elsewhere.
‘Mo Yan’ is a pseudonym which translates as ‘don’t speak’, so perhaps his views on the pleasures of dictatorship are not wholly surprising. What is surprising is that the Nobel Committee could have believed that the political dimension was irrelevant to Mo Yan’s standing as a writer in China. It would appear to be crucial, no matter how beguiling his magical realism.