The 120-year turbulent march of Nobel Prize

Shihab Sarkar   | Thursday, 14 October 2021

Though it may sound unpalatable, it's true the Nobel Prize for Literature has lost its earlier appeal to many in the recent years. In the past, speculations used to swirl around the prize, the world's most prestigious, from the very beginning of the award-giving season. Of the total six, the prizes for literature, peace and economics would generate the highest volume of curiosity and suspense-filled wait. This year the prizes in these three categories went to Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania) for literature, Canadian-American David Card, Israeli-American Joshua Angrist, and Dutch-American Guido Imbens for Economics, and Maria Ressa and Dimitry Muratov for Peace. The rest of the areas Medicine (3), Chemistry (2) and Physics (3) went to 8. Total 13 were honoured with the world's most highly coveted awards. The mere bloated number of the awardees shows how the importance of the Nobel Prize is being belittled. Except those for Literature, Peace and Economics, the general people care little as to who got the prizes in the other areas. Shifting from their earlier policy, the Norwegian Nobel Committee this year went for two Peace prize winners. Nearly the same applies to the prize for economic sciences (Economics).

The 120-year-old Nobel Prize got its first major jolt in 2016, when the Swedish Academy's jury picked singer-lyricist Bob Dylan for Nobel Literature Prize for that year. This choice kicked up a storm of row and controversy among the purist literary circles around the world. The phenomenally popular singer and song-writer didn't have any hand in this scandalous prize declaration. The living legend became so embarrassed over the Nobel Committee's style of honouring him that he didn't even turn up at the gala prize distribution ceremony. Instead of the customary Nobel Lecture, he sent a brief note of thanks for choosing him as that year's Prize for Literature. Many began thinking that from then on the Nobel Prize would continue to lose its traditional weight and exclusivity. In the following years, that's what has happened with some prizes. The segment of Literature, which could manage to retain its noncontroversial image since the beginning of the prize, went into a virtual free fall. Except Mario Vargas Llosa (2010), Tomas Transtromer (2011), Kazuo Ishiguro (2017), and Peter Handke (2019), the other authors could comfortably be termed 'brilliant minors'.

The awarding of Abdulrazak Gurnah this year could be welcomed for his deft dealing with the refugee ordeals that had buffeted the African continent for the last half century --- especially its north-eastern and eastern parts. But the Nobel Prize jury had miserably made a disservice to world literature by neglecting Nigeria's Chinua Achebe in 1986. The denial of the Swedish Academy, sarcastically termed an unwavering mouthpiece of Western values, to award its Nobel Prize to Achebe was arguably prompted by the writer's championing of the Black African values. Throughout his career, Achebe passionately preferred African ethos to that of the West. But unlike with the dozens of Nobel Prize winners from poorer countries, Chinua Achebe is considered exclusively Nigeria's 'own writer'. His books sell millions of copies in the African continent and elsewhere in the world, including the developed West.

The Royal Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize's parent organisation, has in the recent years been showing a new trend: picking writers on regional basis. Lately, they are compulsively focused on Africa. The march of Nobel Prizes for Literature in Africa began in 1986 with Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, followed by the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (1988), the South African Nadine Gordimer (1991), the South African J M Coetzee (2003) et al. Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah is the latest among the Nobel Laureates. In consideration of the literary activities, the regions of West and Central Asia, and, most prominently, South Asia, have traditionally been made to lag behind many areas. Thanks to its faint link with Europe, the Nobel Committee couldn't short shrift Turkey altogether. The Swedish Academy, supposedly in an act of face saving, awarded the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk in 2006. Since then there has been no murmur about any Turkish author who might deserve to be even long-listed for the prize. The name of Najim Hikmat eventually remained in limbo thanks to his left leaning writings. The Nobel Prize authorities may have found the Syrian modernist poet Adonis unintelligible and irrelevant amid the landscape of the dominantly lyrical Arabic poetry.

Amid these appallingly lopsided literary judgements, the plight of South Asia is understood. In the last 108 years, no Nobel Literature Prize came to the Indian sub-continent. Poet Rabindranath Tagore was honoured with the great prize in 1913. His prize informed the world that an ancient land called Bengal had been there in India for thousands of years. The outside world came to know that mystical poetry and a rich folk culture distinguished Bengal and the Bengalees, its poetry and music-loving inhabitants. Tagore's receiving the Nobel, and the world's increasing focus on Bengal and Bangla language emerged as a turning-point in the land's 20th century identity. Tagore was not 'a modern poet' in the sense the post-WW-I Western poets were. But he introduced to the world's poetry lovers the unique Eastern transcendental message not ever heard before. The European readers felt both thrilled and amazed, as they entered Tagore's poetic world. Tagore's mysticism differed with William Blake's or W.B. Yeats'. The latter played a great role in ensuring that the Bengalee poet receives the prize. Tagore was honoured by the Swedish Academy for his collection of poetry --- 'Gitanjali'. The poet himself translated all the poems in the anthology.

Over a century has elapsed since Tagore's Nobel honour. In the long gap, not a single poet from the vast Bangla-speaking region had been found eligible for the prize. Bangladesh is a poetry- and literature-loving country. The greater Bengal has produced dozens of poets and prose-writers. Modernist literary movements have been taking place one after another in the sovereign state of Bangladesh since its 1971 independence. Except the prize for microcredit and microfinance, awarded to Dr Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh has yet to receive any Nobel Prize. However, India, South Asia's largest country, can take pride in its 12 Nobel prizes in different sectors. Of them, two are Bengalees who emerged in post-1947 Partition of India. They are Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee.  Both of them were awarded in the category of Economics. In total, four Bengalees, including one Bangladeshi, won the Nobel Prize.

In a broader perspective, more persons deserve today to be honoured with the Prize. Scores of people have been overlooked, some allegedly deliberately. Many highly deserving candidates were not fortunate enough to have people recommending their names to the Nobel Committee.

People in the remote island-countries normally fall victim to this drawback. Besides, personal jealousy between writers of the same country and one's better liaison with the Nobel high-ups lead to the dropping of many writers better than their rivals. This has been seen in the alleged 1986 feud between Nigeria's novelist Chinua Achebe and dramatist Wole Soyinka. The prize finally went to Wole Soyinka. But Achebe was far more critically acclaimed with wider readership than the playwright. The Nobel Jury members' personal choices for certain countries and regions also keep determining the fate of many authors. With all these considerations at work, the luck to be awarded the Prize finally proves clouded. It's a small few who find their chances completely cloud-free. A few unconscionable omissions of authors and people in the other categories, like Peace, will continue to detract from the image of this prestigious award.

At the same time, awarding a number of others below par has been chipping away at the world's oldest award-giving institution. The glaring omissions include Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Anthon Chekov, Maxim Gorky, Ibsen, Emile Zola, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Rilke, Robert Frost, Bertolt Brecht, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Garcia Lorca, Nikos Kazantzakis, Jorge Luise Borges, Graham Greene, R.K. Narayan and a number of others. Had not these passing-over flaws plagued the Nobel Prize in its 120-year history, it would have found itself more strongly ensconced in its exclusive place in the world's public view.

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