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China Nobel winner Mo likely to steer clear of politics: translator

Chinese writer Mo Yan, in Stockholm, Sweden in this May 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Peter Lyden/Scanpix
Chinese writer Mo Yan, in Stockholm, Sweden in this May 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Peter Lyden/Scanpix

By John Ruwitch

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's newest Nobel laureate, novelist Mo Yan, could use his new-found stature to make a subtle difference in the arena of freedom of speech in China, but he is more likely to keep his head down and avoid politics, his translator said on Friday.

The 57-year-old Chinese author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, has achieved his success by working within a system with distinct boundaries, not ignoring them, said Howard Goldblatt, who has translated several of Mo's works into English, including the acclaimed "Red Sorghum". The book was later the basis for a film directed by Zhang Yimou.

"I think Mo Yan could actually, in a very nuanced way, make a difference and get some of this stuff happening," Goldblatt said by telephone from Boulder, Colorado, referring to improving freedom of speech and conditions for writers.

"To be honest with you, I doubt that he will. I think he's just a novelist who doesn't want to be involved in those things."

"He wants to continue to write, and to continue to write the kinds of things he needs and wants to write he has to live within certain parameters."

Mo is the first Chinese national to win the prize, which comes with a financial reward of $1.2 million, and the decision was celebrated by state-controlled media in China and on popular Chinese microblogging sites.

Critics have said the decision was odd, and that Mo's works were not artistically original, emulating Latin American authors. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei said Mo carried the "taint of government".

Such comments were neither accurate nor fair, though, said Goldblatt, who noted that Mo started writing his trademark fantastical novels before reading Latin American works by authors including Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

"If he's influenced by anything he's influenced by Chinese storyteller traditions, by the mindset and the concept of place by Faulkner," he said, referring to U.S. writer William Faulkner.

"NO PUSHOVER"

Mo is a Communist Party member who grew up in a small town and served in the military, which Goldblatt said colored his world view. But he was not very different, in that respect, to other authors in China.

"They are all party members, and they are all members of the (state-backed) writers union," Goldblatt said.

"You have to be. And all of these other writers are writing under the same strictures, they're writing in the same environment, they know the rules, they do essentially what he does."

Mo is not a pushover, though. He has not been afraid to push the literary limits and some of his works have been banned in China. His 1988 book "The Garlic Ballads", which Goldblatt later translated into English, depicts folly and brutality in Communist policy, which leads to tragedy.

Twelve years ago, when Chinese-born author Gao Xingjian was awarded the Nobel literature prize, Beijing attacked the exiled dissident writer and sharply criticized the Nobel award committee. Mo publicly defended Gao.

"He was one of a very, very small number of writers who came out and defended Gao Xingjian saying 'He's a good writer, he's Chinese, all of these things that you're saying are simply not true'."

"You know, he respects and likes the dissidents," said Goldblatt.

"He just doesn't want to become one of them in exile."

(Editing by Sui-Lee Wee and Robert Birsel)

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