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China’s Mo Yan wins Nobel

A Chinese author whose name, until this morning, was likely unfamiliar to many in the West has won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mo Yan is arguably best known for his novel Red Sorghum, which was adapted as an internationally successful film by Zhang Yimou in 1987. The Swedish Academy, in announcing the winner, said the author’s “hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary.

Yan is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel in the prize’s 111-year history, and the only non-Western laureate in the past decade. (Gao Xingjian, who was born in China but emigrated to France in 1987, won the prize in 2000.)

According to his Nobel biography, Mo Yan is a pseudonym for Guan Moye. He was born in 1955 as the son of farmers and grew up in Shandong province in northeastern China.

During the Cultural Revolution, 12-year-old Yan left school to work and later joined the People’s Liberation Army, where he began to study literature and to write.

From the Nobel biography:

Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition. In addition to his novels, Mo Yan has published many short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.

Yan’s works include The Garlic Ballads (1995), The Republic of Wine (2000), and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2008). His novel Sandalwood Death, published in China in 2004 and described as “a story of human cruelty in the crumbling Empire,” is forthcoming in 2013.

Yan’s win likely caught some Nobel watchers by surprise. Ladbrokes, the U.K. bookmakers, had listed Japanese author Haruki Murakami as the favourite to win this year’s prize, with Alice Munro also among the most likely.