Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Laureate: China Media’s Initial Reactions

Oct 20 Update

Booming Sales of Alexievich’s Works:

State Media Attributes them to China’s “Nobel Complex”

Oct 12 Update

Man Asian Literary Prize winner Bi Feiyu praises Alexievich and her brand of non-fiction in an interview with Yangzi Evening News毕飞宇:今年的诺奖不是一个冷门 . But he does not cite any current practitioners of oral history or investigative journalism in China.

Oct 10 Post

Given China’s Nobel complex, it’s always interesting to see how the media reports on the newest winners. Year afterSvetlana Alexievich year, those trouble-makers in Stockholm put the spotlight on the wrong sort of people, such as China’s own Liu Xiaobo (now serving time in a Chinese prison), Gao Xingjian — the China-born-and-raised author the state refuses to recognize as Chinese — and foreigners such as dissident writer Herta Müller, who wrote about the gulags.

So what is China’s media saying about Belarus’ 斯韦特兰娜·阿列克谢耶维奇 (Svetlana Alexievich)? It’s still early days, and we can expect more coverage and commentary soon. But that’s what makes the initial pronouncements such good fun; the state’s cultural spin doctors aren’t yet sure how politically correct — or incorrect — she is.

Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), Xinhua’s popular daily digest of translated international news that generally sells out on newsstands all over China by early afternoon, takes a cautious “smorgasbord” approach: It has run short excerpts from four multinational press agencies (四篇的原文). This allows it to create an impression of variety while deleting the (potentially troubling) opinions that one generally finds in a longer essay from the New York Times or the Financial Times, for instance.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the exact same AFP piece on Alexievich’s award that appeared in the Oct 9 edition of Cankao Xiaoxi, but variations on it were widely published, such as here in the Singapore Times Everywhere I’ve seen it online in English, the AFP news item contains this sentence or something very similar:

But her books, controversially written in Russian, are not published in her home country, long ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, amid what the author has described as “a creeping censorship”.

Through a bit of judicious editing, the Cankao Xiaoxi version implies that her work has not been published in Belarus simply because she wrote it in Russian, rather than her critical approach to Soviet history. The Chinese reader sees only the words that I have not struck out:

But her books, controversially written in Russian, are not published in her home country, long ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, amid what the author has described as “a creeping censorship”.

Over at the always-reactionary-but-often-hilarious Global Times (Chronicler of Tears), the accent is on positioning this year’s award as politically motivated, thereby downplaying the literary value of the writing itself:

In Qiu’s opinion [Qiu Huadong, deputy editor-in-chief of People’s Literature magazine], political considerations had a lot of weight in the decision to give the Nobel to Alexievich.

“They wanted to select an author who has persistently criticized social realities in Russia and Alexievich is no doubt the best choice,” Qiu told the Global Times, adding that the Ukraine crisis has led to a taut relationship between Europe and Russia.

“Personally speaking, that’s the main reason they chose her.”

Meanwhile, the very official Chinanews.com — with a special section devoted to literature that generates hundreds of news items weekly — is uncharacteristically tightlipped (荣获). It devotes just 210 words to the award, mainly of a list of her published works. Given that at least four have been translated in Chinese and are available on the mainland (see Amazon.com.cn), that’s a little surprising. After all, unlike in her native Belarus, they aren’t banned in China.

So far, the most informative piece I’ve come across on Svetlana Alexievitch is yesterday’s interview (采访) with the editor of her translated books, Chen Liang (陈亮). A few factoids that emerge:

Zinky Boys by Svetlana AlexeivichVisit to China

Alexievich visited the PRC in the 1980s.

Shortage of Russian-to-Chinese literary translators

The mainland edition of 切尔诺贝利之声 (Voices from Chernobyl) was first translated in Taiwan based on an English translation. Subsequent renditions of other works were done by mainland Chinese fluent in Russian, but Chen Liang laments that most of the highly qualified translators are getting on in age, and there are few younger ones to replace them.

Years in exile

Alexievich spent 2000-11 outside her native Belarus in places such as Paris (as well as Italy, Germany and Sweden, according to Global Times). Her exile is noted in several Chinese sources such as Baidu Baike, while it is not highlighted in global media such as The Guardian’s backgrounder.

It’s also interesting to note that Alexievich’s work is treated in isolation in all of the Chinese news items I read. That is to say, no one cites writers focusing on contemporary oral history in today’s China; curiously, discussion is limited to her books.

Several Chinese writers do come to mind, however, even if the work of the latter two has been partially fictionalized:

  • Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye and their Chinese Lives (北京人). Although this was published back in the 80s, this is one of the very best examples of low-key but hard-hitting post-1949 oral histories that I’ve ever read. The Chinese original reads uncannily like unedited speech, a rarity in China today.

Without a doubt, the most informative piece in Chinese that I’ve found so far is 前苏联悲惨时代的记录者 by 陆晶靖. But then, it’s not on a state-run web site.

In the English-speaking world, Nobel Prize Takes a Literary Swipe at Putin makes for a great read too.

If you’d like to read English excerpts from Alexievich’s work, visit:

Boys in Zinc 

Voices from Chernobyl 

The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt

Comments

  1. Francoise Robin says:

    Thank you for this info, Bruce. Last year, S. Alexievich and Liao Yiwu met during a debate in Paris, hosted by Le Monde. The theme was “How to be a dissident today?”. S. Alexievich was absolutely brilliant, sophisticated and deeply human, and her brilliance was perfectly conveyed by her interpretor, a seasoned translator with very good knowledge of the topic discussed and of S. Alexeivitch’s works. Liao was unfortunately put at a disavantadge by his interpretor, a very young Chinese woman apparently not familiar with the topic. Supreme irony: she stumbled several times on the word “dictatorship” (dictature), not out of embarrassment it seems, but more likely because it was not a concept she often came across. This is all the more enraging as Marie Holzman, Liao’s French translator, was sitting next to him on the stage and would have done a much better job. Anyway, one can watch the debate now subtitled in French on:http://www.lemonde.fr/festival/article/2014/05/22/comment-etre-dissident-aujourd-hui_4421632_4415198.html Hopefully, Liao’s ideas are better translated and conveyed.
    FYI, the Tibetan literary website “Butter Lamp” relayed yesterday the news of the awarding of the prize to Alexievitch (as they do every year for all Literature Nobel Prizes), commenting that she was censored in her own country and that some had suspected her of being Western spy. Being victim of literary censorship in a dictatorship, a great quality in today’s Tibetan intellectuals’ eyes.

  2. Fascinating as always, thanks Bruce.

  3. Christopher Cottrell says:

    Appreciate this illuminating essay. The links at the bottom are especially welcome and well chosen.

  4. Francoise Robin says:

    The link to the Tibetan website is http://www.tibetcm.com/news/2015-10-08/7779.html

    A Tibetan writer whom I contacted yesterday said he had never read SA’s works but would surely do soon – via their Chinese translations. No idea whether a Tibetan translation is planned. As far as I know, last year’s prize recipient, Modiano, has not been translated into Tibetan, although I have met some Tibetans who had since then read his books in Chinese translation. Same with Pamuk: he is read in Chinese by Tibetan literature lovers. Munro too, but someone said the translation of her works into Chinese had been done in a rush, after she was granted the Nobel prize.

    Here is a link to a webpage in Tibetan giving the list of Literature Nobel Prize winners’ books available in Chinese from Amazon. Books and titles are all translated in Tibetan for the purpose of the list: http://tb.tibet.cn/2010wx/xw/201409/t20140929_2037739.htm, although hardly any (if any at all) are available in Tibetan.

    In general, literature and peace Nobel prizes are carefully scrutinised and commented by Tibetans. The former because Tibetan-language educated Tibetans are fans of literature and the written word, and the second for obvious reasons which I do not need to go into.

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