Posts Tagged ‘Bei Dao’

More on Mo: an “officially sanctioned artist” or merely a cautious kinda guy?

Friday, October 12th, 2012
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"Don't speak"

As may be gathered from yesterday’s post, I’d never heard of Mo Yan before yesterday’s award.  While everyone today is laughing about the Onion satires that suggest that the Nobel peace prize has been awarded to the European Union (thank heavens it wasn’t the economics prize, as a friend noted), I’m still puzzling on Mo Yan, whose pen name is translated as “don’t speak.”

Here’s what Ted Gioia, whose weekly “Year of Magical Reading” spotlights the magical realism genre (it’s here),  said this about him on my Facebook page: “Not a very inspired choice. If the Nobel judges wanted to turn to Asia, Murakami was the obvious candidate – and his work is more skilled, creative and influential than Mo Yan’s.

Ted, expert on magic

“He is presented as a brave critic of Chinese repression, but his works are actually quite cautious and seem self-censored to me. He aims for parody and humor, and is sometimes amusing, but I can’t see him as a Nobel laureate – unless the judges were determined to pick a Chinese author this year.”

Why not Bei Dao then … oh that’s right.  They won’t do poetry two years in a row.  Poetry must be kept in its place, after all.

David Ulin, my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review has a piece in the L.A. Times today, spelling out what Ted had summarized:

Mo is what some critics deride as an officially sanctioned artist, a vice chairman of the China Writers’ Assn., celebrated by the establishment. Although he has been called “one of the most famous, oft-banned and widely pirated of all Chinese writers,” he recently was one of “100 writers and artists” who participated in a tribute to Mao Tse-tung. In 2009, he refused to sit on a panel at the Frankfurt Book Fair with dissident writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling, and he has avoided making any public statements about Liu [Xiaobo].

At the same time, his work has often hit on touchy subjects, such as the role of women in Chinese society and the Communist Party’s one-child rule. His 11th novel, Frog, published in 2009 and not yet available in the United States [we published an excerpt here – B.H.], involves a midwife confronted by the forced sterilizations and late-term abortions demanded by the party’s policy.

I'll skip the party, thx!

Mo’s detractors are forceful. “For him to win this award, it’s not a victory for literature; it is a victory for the Communist Party,” raged Yu Jui, a writer and democracy activist, in a blog post.

David of L.A.T.

The article launches into something of a defense of new Nobelist, quoting his words in 2009:  “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature,” he said then, “but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”

Meanwhile, John Freeman‘s interview with the Chinese author at the London Book Fair this week is included in Granta, which seems to be the go-to place for Mo Yan this month.  The Q&A is here.

Am I the only one wondering today when they’re going to let their other recent Nobel writer (though a peace, not lit, prizewinner)  – Liu Xiaobo – out of prison?  He still has the distinction of being the second person ever to be denied the right to have a representative pick up his prize for him.

 

We’re surprised, he’s scared: Mo Yan wins this year’s Nobel

Thursday, October 11th, 2012
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He doesn't look scared, anyway.

By now, everyone knows that China’s Mo Yan is the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  “Surprise,” because he made not even a ripple on Ladbroke’s long betting list, or in any conversations I’ve heard.   Not so much a surprise, however, given that the Swedes were bound to atone for giving last year’s award to their worthy countryman Tomas Tranströmer, by giving it this year to an African or Asian, or anyone far, far away from Stockholm.  But wasn’t the poet Bei Dao a perennial nominee?  The Nobel judges seem disinclined to give to poets two years in a row as well.  At any rate, Mo Yan was “overjoyed and scared” at the news.

Most of us are strangers to his writing, I suspect.  So  here is Ted Gioia‘s review of the author’s Republic of Wine a few years back.

And for his stories, here’s an excerpt from Frogs:

I have to admit that, though I did not make it public, I was personally opposed to my Aunty’s marriage plans. My father, my brothers and their wives shared my feelings. It simply wasn’t a good match in our view. Ever since we were small we’d looked forward to seeing Aunty find a husband. Her relationship with Wang Xiaoti had brought immense glory to the family, only to end ingloriously. Yang Lin was next, and while not nearly the ideal match that Wang would have provided, he was, after all, an official, which made him a passable candidate for marriage. Hell, she could have married Qin He, who was obsessed with her, and be better off than with Hao Dashou . . . we were by then assuming she’d wind up an old maid, and had made appropriate plans. We’d even discussed who would be her caregiver when she reached old age. But then, with no prior indication, she’d married Hao Dashou. Little Lion and I were living in Beijing then, and when we heard the news, we could hardly believe our ears. Once the preposterous reality set in, we were overcome by sadness.

Read the rest at Granta here.

Wisława Szymborska: a feather touch that, for all its lightness, lingers

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
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Wisława Szymborska is dead at 88.  It’s after 1 a.m., but it wouldn’t seem right to let the night pass without a comment.

In 2008, I had tried persistently to meet the reclusive Nobel poet in Kraków – another story, for another time.  During my return for the Year of Czesław Miłosz last spring, my time had run out too quickly, and now apparently hers has also.

But I did see her briefly last spring, at a rare public appearance at St. Catherine’s Church, a reading where she shared the stage with her friend Julia Hartwig, the Chinese poet Bei Dao, and others.  The formidable figure seemed friendly, frail, exuding warmth and authenticity.  Afterward, she was whisked away through the back, like a rare and delicate doll that must be exhibited, but not touched by the fans who had flooded the medieval church.

Somewhere on a thumb drive I have a photo, but I’ll settle today for the more magical one from the Poetry Foundation website.

According to the New York Times obituary:

Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published.

Asked why, she once said: “There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.”

When I reviewed her collection Monologue of a Dog for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, I wrote this:

Perhaps the reason for the paucity is because it took a long while to edit the “I” out of her poems, which slip in and out of personal identity. The heart-breaking title poem assumes the voice of a dictator’s dog; “Among the Multitudes” considers the wonder of being born human rather than with fins or feathers; another poem ponders her one-sided relationship with plants; “Plato, or Why” asks about the Ideal Being — “Why on earth did it start seeking thrills/ in the bad company of matter? … Wisdom limping/ with a thorn stuck in its heel?”

Or perhaps it’s because, as she has written elsewhere, she has tried to borrow weighty words, and then labored to lighten them. As always with Szymborska, a poet who survived the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Poland, poems of war and dislocation are told with a feather touch that nonetheless, for all its lightness, lingers. “Some People” describes the plight of refugees: “Always another wrong road ahead of them,/ always another wrong bridge/ across an oddly reddish river.”

Szymborska’s lightness is never denial or indifference; it is a subtle means of defiance. Italo Calvino, who praised the literary virtue of leggerezza, which he called the “subtraction of weight,” elaborated: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”

The BBC included this poem, the wisest epitaph:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

TLS: Czeslaw Milosz around the world

Thursday, November 24th, 2011
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Rock star treatment

What a nice way to celebrate Thanksgiving!  My article in the Times Literary Supplement is online today, and not behind a paywall.  It begins:

In May this year, the streets of old Cracow were dominated by two names, two events. Czeslaw Milosz’s centenary jostled with Pope John Paul II’s beatification in windows, on banners and billboards, on bookstore shelves, in fliers and leaflets – the pope, perhaps, having the edge over the Nobel laureate, except on the kiosks where Milosz Festival posters prevailed. “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a Purgatory”, Milosz told me over a decade ago. “So he must go through that moment of revision after death.” The “revision”, at this point, is a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Milosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.

The Works

Few poets have been feted with such rock star exuberance. The “Milosz Pavilion” on Szczepanski Square hosted literary luminaries such as Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao, Tomas Venclova, Adonis, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya. (Even the reclusive Wislawa Szymborska made a rare public appearance with her colleague Julia Hartwig at the medieval St Catherine’s Church.) Meanwhile, the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum sponsored a week-long scholarly conference with seventy participants from around the world, including the eminent critics Helen Vendler and Clare Cavanagh, and some leading Polish scholars. The Jagiellonian Library, farther from the centre of town, exhibited manuscripts, photographs and first editions. The events were attended by thousands. All this year, books have poured from Polish publishers. Most notably, Milosz’s own publisher, Znak, issued two hefty volumes: Andrzej Franaszek’s 1,000-page biography – a bestseller – and a new 1,500-page Collected Poems. A few of the literati complained to me that Milosz was not receiving his due among the younger generation – an honoured marble bust to be dusted off seasonally, but not read or remembered – but I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The rest is here.

Bei Dao on literary black holes and cultural vulgarity

Friday, August 26th, 2011
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Reading in Kraków (Photo: Droid)

Protesters once shouted his poems in Tiananmen Square. Now the 62-year-old poet lives quietly in Hong Kong with his wife and six-year-old son.

I wrote about Bei Dao at May’s Czesław Miłosz Festival in Kraków. According to an article in the China Daily, he returned to mainland China this month, for the second time in 20 years. The first time was the occasion of his father’s death in 2001.

The occasion this time was the opening ceremony of the festival in Xining, capital of northwest Qinghai province.  The poet, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai, wore a brick-red jacket and grey pants as he made a short speech.  Although he was quickly surrounded by fans clamoring for his autograph and hoping to be photographed with him, he seemed to retreat to the inner solitude I observed in Poland.

At Stanford over a decade ago, he described himself as “a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country.” In Kraków, he said, “Materialism and consumption destroyed Chinese culture.”  His visit to mainland China continued those themes:

In his eyes, compared to the prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s, today’s Chinese literature is uninspired. “It’s true not only in China but also across the world, and it’s related to many factors, like materialism oriented by consumption, the nationwide trend of seeking entertainment, information dissemination brought by new technologies. All these things are making bubbles in language and literature,” he said.

He pointed out that previously a clear-cut division existed between “vulgar” culture and “serious” culture, but today vulgar culture is swallowing serious culture like a black hole, and unfortunately, many writers are forced to lower their writing standards to cater to vulgarity in today’s society.

There are other reasons for the devolution of Chinese poetry, Bei Dao said, such as the absence of a system of construction.

In 1999 at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Poetry needs good guides, and a good critic is a good guide who can lead or shape a group of well-educated readers through unscrambling and analyzing poets.”

He said that college students and scholars who used to read poetry have lost their enthusiasm for it amid China’s social transformation, and now poetry only evokes nostalgia for them.

Meanwhile, the poet noted, the young generation of readers who grew up in the era of commercialization could not escape the impact of the times on them.

Bei Dao: “Each language keeps the secret code of a culture”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
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Reading at St. Catherine's Church, Kraków (Photo: Droid)

In an early poem, Bei Dao wrote, “freedom is nothing but the distance/between the hunter and the hunted.”

All too true, as he soon found out.

Protesters once shouted his poems in Tiananmen Square, and after his exile (he had been in Berlin during the 1989 uprising), he continued to write in Scandinavia, the U.S., and France.  He now teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, since the government allowed his return to the PRC a few years ago.

At last month’s Czesław Miłosz Festival in Kraków, he participated in a panel called “Place of Birth” with Lithuanian Egidijus Aleksandravičius, English Timothy Garton Ash, and Polish Irena Grudzińska Gross, hosted by Italian Francesco Cataluccio.  Although some of the estrangements from native realms were more voluntary than others, the team discussed their sense of displacement from homeland.

But the most haunting words of the evening belonged to Bei Dao:  “It’s mysterious. Why do we think about birthplace, mother tongue, the origin of life?” he asked.  And then he gave his answer.

“Each language keeps the secret code of a culture,” he said.

“China is unified by a written language,” he said.  “The local accent keeps their secret, keeps their code.”  That’s what he cherishes, and that is what the world is most at risk of losing.

His words returned to me today as I read an unusually eloquent McClatchy Newspapers article, “Silenced Voices,” by Tim Johnson:

Some linguists say that languages are disappearing at the rate of two a month. Half of the world’s remaining 7,000 or so languages may be gone by the end of this century, pushed into disuse by English, Spanish and other dominating languages.The die-off has parallels to the extinction of animals. The death of a language, linguists say, robs humanity of ideas, belief systems and knowledge of the natural world. Languages are repositories of human experience that have evolved over centuries, even millennia.

“Languages are definitely more endangered than species, and are going extinct at a faster rate,” said K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of the book When Languages Die. “There are many hundreds of languages that have fewer than 50 speakers.”

Language is an invisible triumph of humanity, and its disappearance brings only silence.”It’s not as flashy as a pyramid, but it represents enormous human achievement in terms of the thought and effort that went into it,” said Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University…

Miłosz knew this:  This is why Miłosz wrote in Polish throughout his 40 years of exile in California, said the Chinese poet.

In 1999 at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Bei Dao was born in 1949 in Beijing.  “As Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, I was lying in my cradle no more than a housand yards away. My fate seems to have been intertwined with China ever since,” he wrote in the festival’s 100-page companion book. “I received a privileged, but brief, education. I was a student at the best high school in Beijing, until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.  All the schools were closed, and three years later I was assigned to work in the state-run construction industry.”

In those harsh circumstances, at the age of 20, the young construction worker began to write at a site in the mountains more than 200 miles from Beijing.

During the conference session, he recalled visiting his dying father in a brief respite from exile, but Beijing was a disappointment:  “It was not my city anymore.”

“The Chinese people do not know how to rebuild,” he said, praising the preservation of Venice and Florence.  The Chinese, by contrast, “build like Las Vegas – very, very ugly buildings.”

Left to right: Francesco Cataluccio, Bei Dao, Timothy Garton Ash, Egidijus Aleksandravičius, Irena Grudzińska Gross (Photo: my Droid)

“We were drawn by the concept of progress from the West and from Marxism.  Progress became the canon for Chinese people. There was more attention on GDP and new buildings.  Materialism and consumption destroyed Chinese culture.”

At Stanford over a decade ago, he remarked, “I don’t have a motherland now.”

“Someone recently said to me that I am like a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country, and I like that.”

But things change, in our heads as well as in the world.

Detroit, the notorious city of my birth, is now as much a gutted ruin if it had been destroyed by enemy mayhem – which in a sense it had been.  And as some of the speakers mourned their lost homes, I wondered if they were actually mourning the passage of time as much as they were exile and upheaval.

Political exile is poignant, but disguises a more inexorable reality: We are exiles in time as well as in space.  Both are excruciatingly transient.

The Poles throw a party: postcard from Kraków

Monday, May 9th, 2011
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Jagiellonian University's Collegium Novum

When the Poles throw a party – they don’t settle for half-measures.  And what better occasion than the Czesław Miłosz centenary?  This is easily the most lavish, labor-intensive, high-class shindig of its kind I’ve ever attended.

We’re not just talking about the obvious:  swag bags with books and DVDs; Miłosz pencils, pens, and t-shirts; Miłosz’s signature on the dinner napkins, and just about everywhere else.  It’s not only the stunning setting at Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in Europe.

Collegium Novum's Assembly Room

Everyone is here:  Derek Walcott, Bei Dao, Thomas Venclova, Adonis, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, and Adam Michnik are among the luminaries – but only among. There are many more.

Queen Jadwiga's portrait watches over us

Though the Book Haven has been relatively silent lately, obviously I have not been idly eating bonbons.  Or at least, not only. This conference at the university’s Collegium Novum and the “Miłosz Pavilion” has pretty much been running me ragged – and the Milosz365 festival continues into the weekend and next week.

And organizers Jerzy Illg, publisher of Znak, and Aleksander Fiut, Miłosz scholar, have bags under their eyes …  Well, they’re not the only ones.

Consider this a down payment.  More later.

Postscript on 5/14:  Walcott’s a no-show, nobody knows why, though a pleasant, vague letter was read by Jerzy Illg at one of the events.  I understand this is not the first time Walcott has bailed.

Lunch at Le Monde with Philip Fried in NYC

Saturday, March 26th, 2011
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This week in New York City has been drenched in Polish literature (see posts here and here) – so my visit with poet Philip Fried, founding editor of the 30-year-old Manhattan Review, may at first seem like something of an anomaly.

Until, that is, you realize that the quiet Manhattan Review was the first American journal to publish an interview with Polish poet and dissident Stanisław Barańczak in 1981. The review began to publish the work of Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao as early as 1990. And, according to its website, in 1994 it launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign that increased the number of poetry reviews in The New York Times.

I discovered the review when I was unearthing a rare, early interview with Zbigniew Herbert, by his translators John and Bogdana CarpenterThe Manhattan Review was among the first reviews to devote a whole issue to the renowned poet in the mid-1980s – and I initially contacted Philip to get more than the snippets I found online.  (I also, on this visit, received a copy of his Early/Late: New and Selected Poems, published last month by Salmon Poetry.)

One would think that the Manhattan Review, which has two new poems by Les Murray in its current issue, would be better known.  But Philip and the Manhattan Review are as quiet as it namesake island is named is noisy.  We nevertheless had a pleasant and talkative lunch at Le Monde, an amiable bistro that “celebrates the cuisine of the Loire Valley” near Columbia University.  Besides Polish poetry, we discussed the upheaval in the book industry and the dwindling presence of poetry on the American scene.  What, after all, is a poet to do?  The attempts to “reach out” to the public via April Poetry Month are usually farcical.  Poet celebrities are often, well… not really poets at all.  Pulling up the drawbridge and sticking to one’s own tiny audience has resulted in a situation Philip compared to polar bears on ever-shrinking ice floes – an image that will stay with me for some time to come.

Postscript on 3/28:  Philip just wrote to tell me he got a nice notice in Publishers Weekly — a publication we rate highly since it put humble moi and  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz one of the top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.  Here’s what it said about Philip’s latest collection:

This skillful and memorable first selection can seem like the work of three or four different poets, though wit and civility hold it together. First comes a bevy of poems about God, often comic, and often spoken in His assumed voice: often in stand-alone prose sentences (like the Book of Proverbs) they mix the language of elevated salvation with the debased terms of business and politics: “I regret to inform you that, in the purview of immutable discretion, it has now become necessary to downsize the elect.” Verse from Fried’s Mutual Trespasses (1988) also looks at–or speaks for–a divine Creator, wittily juxtaposing His omnipotence with human foibles and emotions: “He seemed to sink/ into Himself, a collapsing/ mountain.” Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), making up most of the last half of this collection, casts aside divinity for carefully ironized versions of family history: nostalgic at times, more outwardly conventional, these pages may nonetheless hold his strongest work. The New York-based Fried (who edits the Manhattan Review) closes with supple, formally acrobatic excerpts from a recent set of sonnets: “I’ve cornered the market on me, but I’ll sell you the shimmer./ When the bubble has burst, volatility is tender.” (Apr.)