The world-renowned Chinese writer Yan Lianke arrived in Prague this week to collect the annual Franz Kafka prize. The 55-year old writer has become the fourteenth recipient of the international literary award, which is given to authors whose work appeals to readers across different cultures. Among the previous winners were Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek and British playwright Harold Pinter, both of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature the same year.
At a ceremony in the Old Town Hall in Prague on Wednesday, the Franz Kafka Society awarded the Chinese writer Yan Lianke, whose works have been translated and won awards abroad. He has won China’s top literary honours, but at the same time, several of his novels were banned. Markéta Mališová of the Franz Kafka Society told me more about this year’s winner:
“Yan Lianke has written more than 20 novels and collections of short stories, which are mostly based on modern Chinese history from the 1960s onwards. He received top Chinese literary awards but at the same time some of his books are banned there. In his books, he describes the reality of life in China, based on his own experiences, and he always focuses on the dark side.”
Yan Lianke got into conflict with authorities with his novels “Dream of Ding Village”, which is about the AIDS crisis caused by HIV-contaminated blood and with his novel “To Serve the People”, with a character, who can only be aroused when his lover smashes images of Chairman Mao. The latter book, along with his most recent novel “Four Books” were also translated to Czech.
Speaking at the awards ceremony at the Old Town Hall on Wednesday, Yan Lianke highlighted the experiences from his childhood in the early 1960s, when over 30 million Chinese died in order to implement Communist ideas. He said that Chinese literature had never before encountered “a reality full of so many hopes and so much impotence at the same time”, and never before had it had in its hands “so many strange stories” that were part of what he called “a rich, absurd, and improbable reality”.
The winner of the Franz Kafka Prize was selected from a short list of eight nominees, whose names remain undisclosed to the public. I asked Markéta Mališová of the Franz Kafka Society why she thought Yan Lianke was the jury’s top choice:
“The main goal is to award an author whose work is exceptional and can appeal to contemporary readers as well as to readers in twenty, or one hundred years’ time, regardless of his country of origin. And I think the jury has made a good decision.”
Unlike many of the previous winners, Yan Lianke went on to win the prize at his first nomination. Along with a cheque for 10,000 US dollars, he has also received a bronze statuette of Kafka, a miniature version of Kafka’s monument by the Czech sculptor Jaroslav Róna.
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