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Este blog trata basicamente de ideias, se possível inteligentes, para pessoas inteligentes. Ele também se ocupa de ideias aplicadas à política, em especial à política econômica. Ele constitui uma tentativa de manter um pensamento crítico e independente sobre livros, sobre questões culturais em geral, focando numa discussão bem informada sobre temas de relações internacionais e de política externa do Brasil. Para meus livros e ensaios ver o website: www.pralmeida.org.

sábado, 9 de fevereiro de 2013

Premio Nobel de Literatura 2012: Mo Yan - Ian Buruma (NYTRBooks)

Folk Opera

‘Sandalwood Death’ and ‘Pow!’ by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, has a deft way with similes: salty, sometimes gross, usually unexpected. Comparing women’s breasts to “ripe mangoes” is almost a cliché, but to describe the nipples as “rising gracefully, like the captivating mouths of hedgehogs” is arresting. Passengers disembarking from a train do so “like beetles rolling their precious dung.” A rich meal of pork lies on a man’s stomach, “churning and grinding like a litter of soon-to-be-born piglets.”
Yuko Shimizu

SANDALWOOD DEATH

By Mo Yan
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
409 pp. University of Oklahoma Press. Paper, $24.95.

POW!

By Mo Yan
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
386 pp. Seagull Books. $27.50.
Yan Bo/European Pressphoto Agency
Mo Yan
What gives Mo Yan’s novels their highly idiosyncratic tone is the combination of a great literary imagination and a peasant spirit. Howard Gold­blatt’s translations catch this atmosphere brilliantly. The prose reads well in English, without losing a distinctly Chinese feel, but it is very far from the classical Chinese tradition. There is nothing mandarin, or even urbane, about Mo Yan’s work. He has retained the earthy character of rural Shandong, where he grew up in a farming family.
Like most of his stories, both “Sandalwood Death” and “Pow!” are set in a rustic place resembling Mo Yan’s native village in Gaomi County. Of “Sandalwood Death,” he has written that it might be less suited to sophisticated readers than “to hoarse voices in a public square, surrounded by an audience of eager listeners.” In fact, it is artfully written in the style of a local folk opera called Maoqiang, now almost defunct. One of the main characters is an opera singer. The rhythms, idioms and narrative techniques of ­Maoqiang are ­woven into the text in a seamless way that only a master storyteller can pull off. The art of telling stories is actually the main theme of both novels.
The narrator of “Pow!,” Luo Xiaotong, is a young man who has a horror of growing up, of entering the corrupt adult world where the powerful prey on the weak. As Mo Yan explains in his afterword, Luo is the reverse of little Oskar in Günter Grass’s “Tin Drum,” the boy whose body stops growing even as his mental age progresses. Luo has a child’s mind in a grown-up body. He is the sort of wise simpleton, a kind of Chinese Soldier Schweik, that often turns up in Mo Yan’s novels. When Luo looks at Aunty Wild Mule, his father’s mistress, he feels “like a boy of 7 or 8,” and yet “the pounding of my heart and the stirrings of that thing between my legs declare to me that I am that child no longer.” By observing the adults, Luo realizes that sex can lead people into some very dark places. And so he clings to a kind of innocence. But, as so often happens when the strain of growing up in a corrupted world becomes intolerable, innocence explodes in an act of extraordinary violence. “Pow” can mean two things: It is the bang of an old Japanese Army mortar, used by Luo to blow the adult world to smithereens; it also means to brag, to tell stories, and even, in Beijing slang, to have sex.
Luo’s bizarre story of his childhood is told to a monk in a decaying temple dedicated to the worship of a lecherous idol named the Horse Spirit. Greed, lust and the abuse of power are the main features of the world observed by Luo. The greediest, most lecherous, most powerful figure in the story is also his benefactor, a man named Lao Lan, scion of a landowning family, who sleeps with Luo’s mother and exploits human greed by monopolizing the production of meat in a village dedicated to animal slaughter.
In this fantasy world of meat-eating gluttony, there is even a Meat God Temple and a Carnivore Festival. Lust for meat isn’t really condemned (nor, for that matter, is sex); it’s the natural response of people who have gone hungry for too long, a grotesque binge after a history of famines. Mo Yan himself was born only a few years before Chairman Mao starved China’s rural population in his monstrous Great Leap Forward.
Luo, the meat-eater, is a highly useful asset to Lao Lan’s business. He has a limitless capacity for food. The champion of a meat-eating contest, Luo adores meat and meat loves him back, to the point of speaking to him in voices. He is an artist of meat-eating, the best in China. Eating, sex and power are closely related in Luo’s fantastic tales, as they are in other novels by Mo Yan, including “Red Sorghum,” made into a much-praised film by Zhang Yimou, and indeed in “Sandalwood Death,” to my mind an even better novel than “Pow!”
Indulging our appetites for food and sex is one way of asserting our individual freedom. Perfecting an art, even of meat-eating, is another. The two artists in “Sandalwood Death” are Sun Bing, an opera singer, and Zhao Jia, his executioner, whose son is married to Sun Bing’s daughter. Zhao is a master at his trade, a genius at administering the slow death by a thousand cuts, the greatest artist of the sandalwood death, able to keep his victim alive for five days while spliced on a sandalwood stake.
Sun Bing has been sentenced to this agonizing death because he dared to attack German soldiers involved in crushing the Boxer Rebellion in 1901. A heroic local patriot, Sun Bing hates these arrogant foreigners for strutting about his native region, building a railway line that will change its ways forever. Like many tales of peasant rebellion, Mo Yan’s reworking of the Boxers’ war with the foreign devils is deeply anti-modern. Loyalty to tradition is part of Mo Yan’s peasant spirit, yet he is not sentimental about the past.
Maoqiang opera is the symbol of Chinese tradition in the novel. But so is the art of inflicting cruel punishments “beyond the imagination of any European.” Chinese executions could be seen, in the words of one of the narrators of “Sandalwood Death,” as stage performances “acted out by the executioner and his victim.” At the end of the novel, the two types of theater come together when Sun Bing sings his last aria while spitted on the wooden stake. His fellow actors defy the German soldiers and their treacherous Chinese helpers by performing an opera on the execution ground to honor their dying master. The theater troupe is mowed down by foreign bullets. Sun Bing dies, stabbed in the chest by a compassionate Chinese official who can no longer stand to witness his suffering. In the last words of the novel: “The opera . . . has ended. . . . ”
In sum: Without art, myths, stories, imagination, life isn’t worth living. And that brings us to Mo Yan’s politics. He has been widely criticized for not being more politically outspoken. Salman Rushdie called him “a patsy of the regime.” According to Mo Yan’s fellow Nobel laureate Herta Müller, awarding him the literature prize was “a catastrophe.”
Mo Yan is certainly no dissident. He might even be accused of cowardice. He could have used his prestige to speak up more forcefully for Liu Xiaobo, the brave literary critic who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while imprisoned for advocating democracy in China. Defending censorship, as Mo Yan did in Stockholm, was also an odd, not to say craven, act for a writer who sets such store on the freedom to tell stories.
Indeed, he refuses to speak out almost as a matter of principle. He has said that his pen name, Mo Yan, meaning “Don’t Speak,” was chosen because his parents warned him not to say things that might cause trouble. “I’ve always taken pride in my lack of ideology,” he writes in the afterword to “Pow!,” “especially when I’m writing.”
Mo Yan does in fact have some strong views. The targets of his satirical barbs are clear: the gross materialism of contemporary China, the venality of government officials, the abuses of political power, the abject opportunism of Chinese collaborators with foreign invaders. But these are rather easy marks. Party leaders are forever denouncing corruption and materialism. It is also a tenet of Communist propaganda that only the party can protect China against foreign depredations.
Perhaps Mo Yan really is in tune with the current Communist regime. Perhaps he simply wants to play it safe. But the political perspective of his fiction is also a reflection of his peasant spirit. To a villager, all politics are strictly local, especially in China, with its vast distances. The capital is far away. National politics aren’t the peasant’s concern. What counts is food on the table, fertility, sex and staying out of trouble, if necessary by appeasing the powerful, be they local or foreign.
This narrow perspective has its advantages. By concentrating on human appetites, including the darkest ones, Mo Yan can dig deeper than political commentary. And like the strolling players of old, the jesters and the public-square storytellers he so admires, Mo Yan is able to give a surprisingly accurate impression of his country. Distorted, to be sure, but sharply truthful, too. In this sense, his work fits into a distinguished tradition of fantasists in authoritarian societies: alongside Mikhail Bulgakov or the Czech master, Bohumil Hrabal.
To demand that Mo Yan also be a political dissident is not only what the Dutch describe as “trying to pluck feathers from a frog.” It’s also unfair. A novelist should be judged on literary merit, not on his or her politics, a principle the Nobel committee hasn’t always lived up to. This time, I think it has. It would be nice if Mo Yan were more courageous, but he has given us some great stories. And that should be enough. 


Ian Buruma is Henry R. Luce professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College. His most recent book is “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.”
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