The new Nobel laureate is Mo Yan, a Chinese writer. He is the first Chinese citizen to win the prize, and doubtless will become the first of many as China’s cultural ascent matches its economic boom and political prominence.

I must confess that I’ve never read anything by him, and I suspect that I’m not alone. The big chief at the Nobel academy, permanent secretary Peter Englund, suggests that we start with Yan’s novel, The Garlic Ballads. The Guardian has helpfully linked to this New York Times review of the novel. His novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips also seems to be a popular choice on the wires, and not solely because of the title.

There is controversy about Yan’s selection. He is accused by some of being too close to the party line, although he has had books banned in the past. However, others say that he is subtly subservsive in a country that limits free speech. He argues that censorship, and indeed more subtle limitations on expression, actually benefit creativity, forcing writers to, as he put it Granta recently, ‘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.’

If one is feeling generous, this attitude recalls a novel like The Master and Margarita. I once heard someone at a seminar argue that Bulgakov’s fantasia was inferior to Solzhenitsyn’s candour in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; the counter-argument was that Solzhenitsyn’s bravery does not necessarily make his work more truthful or valuable. The Nobel committee evidently takes a similar view when it comes to assessing what it describes as Mo Yan’s ‘hallucinatory realism’.

However, in doing so they’ve prompted old questions about what other political positions they may or may not have taken. There is a sense that they want to avoid such questions: the committee’s comments about Mo Yan emphasised his literary achievement above all else, saying that his magical realism has developed independently of other celebrated exponents of that particular art such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet there is no escaping such questions if you believe that the greatest literature must contain more than style and technique. If the prize were to be awarded for bravery, it would surely have gone by now to another noted magical realist.

Tags: China, Literature, Nobel, Politics, salman rushdie