Nobel Laureate Mo Yan: “I Am Guilty”

In his first interview since receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in December, Mo Yan talks to Der Spiegel’s Bernhard Zand about his work, his political views, and his critics.

SPIEGEL: Unspeakable things happen in many of your novels. In “The Garlic Ballads,” for example, a pregnant woman, already in labor, hangs herself. Still, “Frog” seems to be your sternest book. Is that why it took so long to write?

Mo: I carried the idea for this book with me for a long time but then wrote it relatively quickly. You are right, I felt heavy when I penned the novel. I see it as a work of self-criticism.

SPIEGEL: In what sense? You carry no personal responsibility for the violence and the forced abortions described in your book.

Mo: China has gone through such tremendous change over the past decades that most of us consider ourselves victims. Few people ask themselves, though: ‘Have I also hurt others?’ “Frog” deals with this question, with this possibility. I, for example, may have been only 11 years old in my elementary school days, but I joined the red guards and took part in the public criticism of my teacher. I was jealous of the achievements, the talents of other people, of their luck. Later, I even asked my wife to have an abortion for the sake of my own future. I am guilty.

SPIEGEL: You are not only a member of the party, you have repeatedly said that you retain a utopian vision of communism. Yet don’t your books show step by step that this utopia doesn’t always become reality? And should you not therefore consider letting go of this utopia altogether?

Mo: What Marx wrote in the “The Communist Manifesto” was of great beauty. However, it seems to be very hard to make that dream come true. But then again, I look at those European, specifically Northern European, states and societies and wonder: Would these welfare states even be thinkable without Marx? We used to say in China that in a way Marxism has saved capitalism. Because those who benefited most from his ideology seem to be societies in the West. We Chinese, Russians and Eastern Europeans seem to have misunderstood Marxism.

See more about Mo Yan and the Nobel debate via CDT.