His novels deal with Japan’s brutal Second World War occupation of China, and the cruelties inflicted by Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward and the bloody Cultural Revolution. They are often clear in their criticisms of what the Communist Party did to its own people in that era. But nothing is too directly said – Mr. Mo says he chose his pen name while still a soldier to remind himself to be restrained in voicing his opinions.
“I have nothing against the Communist Party,” one of Mr. Mo’s characters declares in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, “and I definitely have nothing against Chairman Mao. I’m not opposed to the People’s Commune or to collectivization. I just want to be left alone to work for myself.”
Speaking to an interviewer at this year’s London Book Fair, Mr. Mo said he thought having to deal with censorship helped him refine his craft. “In our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that [the writer does] not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can 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. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation,” he said.
Peter Englund, the Nobel academy’s permanent secretary, said Mr. Mo had been contacted before the announcement. “He said he was overjoyed and scared.”
A committee known for rewarding dissidents
Rewarding writers sharply critical of the governing regimes of their native countries is a traditional specialty of the secretive committee that determines the Nobel Prize for Literature, with results that are often more controversial politically than they are in terms of literary taste.
Boris Pasternak, author of the worldwide bestseller Dr. Zhivago, was the first to feel the sting of victory when he won the prize at the height of the Cold War in 1958. Outraged Soviet authorities, who had already banned the novel in their country, forced him to decline it.
The Soviets were happy when the 1965 Nobel went to strict party-liner Mikhail Sholokhov, author of And Quiet Flows the Don, which is still regarded as a masterpiece of the otherwise discredited, Communist-approved genre of social realism.
But satisfaction turned to fury in 1970 when the committee gave its nod to arch-dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, widely celebrated in the West for his anti-Communist activism. Mr. Solzhenitsyn later spiced the controversy by joining a growing body of opinion claiming that Mr. Sholokhov had plagiarized his Stalinist masterpiece. (Subsequent research has discounted the suspicion.)
Criticism was fierce when the 1971 literary award went to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who had written paeans in praise of Joseph Stalin in his youth and remained a devoted Communist, ultimately serving as a diplomat in the short-lived government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. He died shortly after the coup that toppled Mr. Allende, and Chilean authorities are still investigating reports he had been poisoned by supporters of the right-wing junta that seized power.
The committee extended its embrace of Soviet victims in 1980 by awarding the literature prize to Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who had lived in exile since the Communist takeover and whose work was banned in Poland, appearing only in roughly printed underground editions. The award coincided with the Gdansk uprising of the Solidarity movement – the first crack in the Iron Curtain.
In 1984, the committee repeated the gesture in Czechoslovakia, awarding 83-year-old poet Jaroslav Seifert, who had remained muzzled by authorities ever since denouncing Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. The award went unremarked in official Czech media and Mr. Seifert, unable to travel to accept his prize, died a year later.
The campaign continued in 1987 when Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky, who had been incarcerated in mental institutions and ultimately expelled from his homeland for “social parasitism,” won the 1987 award. “I am quite positive that a man who reads poetry is harder to prevail upon than one who doesn’t,” he said in his acceptance speech.
Another devoted Communist, Jose Saramago, was living in exile from his native Portugal when he won the prize in 1998, having been driven out of the country by repeated clashes with its government and the Catholic Church. When Mr. Saramago died two years ago, The New York Times eulogized him as a man “known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction.”