“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1994 was awarded to Kenzaburo Oe “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today”.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 was awarded to Mo Yan “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.”
Mo Yan and Oe Kenzaburo
Oe Kenzaburo has to be one of my favourite authors. I have yet to read a piece of his work I have not liked. Over the last few years, I have also discovered Mo Yan, who like Oe, creates addictive, high-quality literature. Both authors have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Oe in 1994, Yan in 2012) and in many ways both authors write with the same techniques, on the same themes, with the same purpose. Comparisons between the two can be made, and this is exactly what I have done.
Relationships form a major part of both authors’ works. As Oe developed as a writer, he shifted his focus from writing about politics and society to that of relationships and his family; the birth of his disabled son Hikari, being a major influence in his work. It is said that he wanted to give Hikari a voice that otherwise he would not be allowed to have. Similarly, Mo Yan also addresses relationships: between family, friends and society.
Teaching Us to Outgrow Our Madness examines family relationships and personal identity. The story follows a young disabled child, Eeyore, and his father who is only addressed as ‘the Fat man’. It is made apparent that the father – son relationship is more than a ‘normal’ family relationship, instead of being loving; ‘the Fat man’ is rather obsessive and needy. The father relies on his son to live. The relationship is interdependent and intense. The ‘Fat man’ – has an emotional greed which is shown through his physically through his appearance as well as through the narrative, allowing the reader to truly understand this obsessive gluttony.
This interdependent greed is also seen in Mo Yan’s work. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, an epic novel following the struggles of Shangguan Lu throughout her life, living through the Japanese occupation, Chinese civil war, the Mao years and present-day China. Shangguan Lu has seven children during this time, only one of which is a son. Initially, it is Shangguan with the obsessive relationship with her son – only feeding him and not his twin sister her breast milk and caring for him in a way which she never cared for her daughters. It soon becomes clear however, that Shangguan Lu is not interdependent upon Jintong: Lu is a strong, powerful woman and she would have still been strong and powerful regardless of giving birth to a son. Jintong is instead incredibly interdependent upon his mother. He becomes obsessed with her breast milk, and as a result will eat or drink nothing else (when his mother refuses he turns to other women, and soon becomes addicted to breasts in general, even dreaming about them). This greed continues throughout his childhood and into his adult life. He is at the mercy of women who are able to breastfeed, and his mother. Jingtong is a completely weak character who does not function outside of drinking breast milk.
The grotesque plays a large role in Oe’s work. If anything, I believe it is what defines him as an author. You will find examples of grotesque imagery from his earlier works, like Prize Stock, to his recently translated The Changeling. Oe uses the grotesque to provide a graphic social commentary, whether political – as in the case of Prize Stock – or the heart of Japanese society. In Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, shocking, grotesque imagery is the main literary device used to convey the narrative, the only chapter where it is less apparent; the abandoned children create their own utopia in which everyone is equal. The contrast between war-time Japanese society, brutal and cruel, with what Japanese society should be like during war – peaceful, caring where everyone looks after one another – is made ever more apparent by this chapter.
Likewise, in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine, paints a graphic and often grotesque image of feasting. Often amusing, but very nauseating, the imagery creates a different perspective of Chinese society which we are not often exposed to. The gluttony of China contrasts with its harrowed past full of war, famine and social unrest. The grotesque cannibalism – the eating of baby boys – combined with the satirical narrative, presents an image of China in which the basics are forgotten: the family, particularly those who are vulnerable in Chinese society. Children are sacrificed to fulfill the adults’ greed and lust for the ‘good things’ in life which come with new found prosperity.
Both authors experiment with narration in their novels, resulting in a personal approach as the story unwinds. Oe Kenzaburo’s The Changeling, for example, is told from the point of view of Kogito as he comes to terms with his best friend’s death. This approach allows Oe to delve deeply into the psyche of the character, seeing his innermost thoughts. Like in other works, Kogito represents Oe himself and within The Changeling, Oe discusses his own life and role in contemporary Japanese society and debates whether or not he has a role to play.
In Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Mo Yan also explores the first person narration to give a unique description of the goings on in Chinese society. You encounter the world through Jintong’s (and occasionally Shangguan Lu’s) eyes. It’s from this perspective you learn about the harshness of Chinese life, about death, destruction and, importantly – at least from Jintong’s point of view – sex. You are able to see the harshness of Chinese life from their view, experience it through their eyes, allowing Mo Yan’s social commentary to be ever stronger.
Interestingly, both novels are not told from the point of view of a typical ‘hero’. Both characters are weak and passive, reacting only when they are told to react. Kogito in The Changeling is often depressed and reflective – his mind caught up in the past and the possible future – rather than the now. Jintong in comparison, whilst living solely in the present, is such a weak character through his obsessive persona, he needs the women around him, the women who feed his obsession, to live. It’s these women who drive the novel forwards, if it was up to Jintong, Big Breasts and Wide Hips would just be a novel about a boy’s obsession with breasts.
Both authors use their work as an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society, warts and all. Both are judgmental about the society in which they live in. In Oe’s work this is more apparent in his earlier novels before he turned to focus on the family. Nevertheless, all of Oe’s characters are striving for individual freedom outside of a limiting, claustrophobic Japanese society. The characters often achieve that freedom, sometimes literally, as in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, or psychologically, as in The Changeling. Oe shows that there is a way of escaping the clutches of Japanese society and return to what society should be about: family, supporting one another, and individual freedom psychologically.
Mo Yan’s work, like Oe, is often a blunt attack on society. Likewise, Mo Yan presents the importance of protecting the vulnerable, the family unit, as in The Republic of Wine. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, takes this one step further by presenting a China which its men, who perceive themselves as being dominant, needing to feed off women (sometimes literally) in order to survive. The novel highlights the weakness of men in Chinese society, and the power of women. It’s the women who keep going when war breaks out, when famines drive families to desperation. Yet it’s these women who are not appreciated, instead mistreated, by the very men in which they feed.
A short blog is not enough to truly understand the works of Mo Yan and Oe Kenzaburo. To experience their work and understand why they are such great and powerful authors, you need to engulf yourself with their work and become a part of their world. I hope I have been able to explain why both authors are similar, what makes them stand out amongst other literary works, and why both truly deserve the Nobel Prize for literature.