Year of a Hundred books – #21 The Prague Cemetery

The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco


I have mentioned before how much I love Umberto Eco. The depth and quality of his writing is above and beyond anything I could ever aspire to as a writer, and as an historian, the historicity of his work is the best I’ve ever come across (excepting maybe Hillary Mantel).

The Prague Cemetery is no exception to this rule, skilfully tying every conceivable anti-semitic, anti-masonic, and often, anti-Jesuit plot, scheme, or crisis from the late 19th century into one overarching conspiracy. Almost every character in the novel actually existed, the only main exception being the “Protagonist”, though Anti-Hero is most definitely a more appropriate title here. Even the main character’s uncle and the source of all his hatred is historically verifiable.

As with all of Eco’s books, amid the history and mystery, there is also an exploration of more abstract concept, such as identity, memory and sanity, done here in a typically skilful way; the character appears to be being visited each night by someone with very-but-not-quite-exactly similar thought to himself, who takes the time to write in his diary before fleeing. This could have been executed a bit more smoothly, it mostly becomes obvious long before the reveal, though the specifics still come as a bit of a shock, but in general, it acts as a good device to tie the book together.

The main downfall for the book is that because the protagonist and POV character is such a despicable creation, it does affect the reading of it. I don’t think I ever felt sympathy for him, though I can’t necessarily be certain of this fact, and I suppose that this may have been part of Eco’s intention. However, reading all of the bile and hatred that passed for the characters thoughts and personality made me feel as unclean and physically repulsed as I did while read Lolita. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the book itself, and indeed, as I say, it was likely Eco’s intention. But still, it did affect my appreciation of the novel, making it the first of Eco’s books that I wouldn’t rate at 5/5. I wouldn’t avoid reading it, but I’d definitely read one of his others, particularly The Name of the Rose or Baudolino first.


In Defence of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Today, it was announced that Mo Yan is the latest Nobel Laureate. As has come to be expected, a lot of people have complained about this (though actually not as many as I’d expected. Still, early days). Some of these people are complaining that it wasn’t Murakami/Kundera/Dylan that won, while others are whingeing yet again that the winner isn’t American, or that the prize is irrelevant, and has been since Jorge Luis Borges died without winning. Then there are the myriad of people who are complaining because of, or attempting to make rather weak jokes about, the fact that they’ve never heard of Mo Yan. It is these last two branches of the complaints that I want to address, one directly, the other indirectly.

Before I came home from work this evening, I had never heard of Mo Yan. I’m not ashamed to admit this, though I do feel a bit frustrated, because it underlines the fact that despite my best intentions, I’m not as well-read as I like to think.  So yes, my initial response was a somewhat apathetic, “Oh, all right then, I’ll go and add his name to my list“. After having done so, (and deducing that Edinburgh City Libraries are not going to have many copies of his books in stock for a while now), I decided I’d have a quick look to see how much one of his eBooks would cost. A search for his name on Amazon presents four of his works available to purchase in eBook form: Two versions of an analytical textbook, an Italian language translation, and an English translation of Red Sorghum, the only of his works that had been adapted into a film. Oh, and the last of these is only available to pre-order, ahead of its publication date, which is tomorrow.

Now, I realise that presence in the Kindle store is far from a good indication of popularity and quality, particularly for foreign language authors; Umberto Eco (one of only a few living author that I would wholeheartedly champion for the award) only has two books available there. Translation adds an extra layer of copyright and publishers resistant to the eBook trend, and in Mo Yan’s case, China’s own “unique” relationship with the media would perhaps go some way towards explaining this discrepancy.

So, as far as I can tell, very few English language readers have heard of Mo Yan, let alone read any of his books. Despite the complaints, no one who is in a position to comment seems to have suggested that his work doesn’t merit the award (Apart from Ai Weiwei, though this has more to do with politics than literature) This begs the question, how does this disparity occur?

I think the answer lies in the way people perceive the Nobel Prizes. There is a collective idea that because the award seeks to commend, as Alfred Nobel decreed “greatest benefit on mankind”, the awards themselves are the greatest prize a man person to achieve. This is blatantly untrue. How can they be? And if people expect the Prizes to fill this role, then there is always going to be disappointment. Yes, the awards are prestigious, in no small part due to the prize (10 Million SEK) and the longevity (111 years and counting), but equating this to supreme merit leads to sickening territorialism.

I’m not saying the Nobel Prize does not have its flaws. First and foremost it is exemplary of wider literary issues of gender imbalance, which I myself am guilty of (note, as I mentioned above, I automatically assumed that Mo Yan was a man, despite having no gendered frame of reference for the name). Fun fact: only 10% of Laureates are women, although statistically the number of female winners appears to be increasing over the last two decades. There are also issues of Politics – as the exclusion of Borges, Ezra Pound, and others demonstrate – Genre fiction, and Philosophy.

However, if you chose to discount the merits of a prize based on its flaws, then I’d argue that the somewhat disconcerting level of sponsorship in most Literary Award (for example, the Man Booker Prize, The Orange Prize for Fiction,and The Costa Book Awards, to a name a few British examples), is more worrying to me than an award that spans language, state, and culture, at the expense of rewarding the same group of authors that are celebrated by the distressingly insular Anglosphere. As I said, Mo Yan’s book is being published in eBook form in English tomorrow, and while I don’t know the context to this, I’d be willing to put money on the fact the Prize had a strong influence on that date, thus demonstrating my point that the Prize allows great literature to transcend its own cultural sphere.

Ultimately I think it’s very important for non-English, or indeed non-French, non-Spanish, or non-Swedish, books to be brought into international, and inter-linguistic attention. If the Nobel Prize, as the most famous literary award, is the only prize that is capable of doing so, I think that is where the Nobel Prize in Literature succeeds at providing the “Greatest benefit on mankind”.

Have you read anything by Mo Yan? What do you think of the Prize, this year or any other? Who would you nominate for it?