Thursday, October 20, 2011



Nigerian author Chinua Achebe gestures during a news conference

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe gestures during a news conference

Posted Thursday, October 20 2011 at 17:28


  • The Nobel literature prize is given to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction. So why has this 81-year old Nigerian, widely considered the most significant African writer of the 20th Century, been given short shrift by Nobel’s Swedish Academy over the years?

The 2011 Nobel Literature Prize has already been awarded, and Africa’s Chinua Achebe, perennially taunted as a worthy contender, has to wait another year.

The same goes for Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was heavily tipped by literary punters to win last year. That was curious. The nominees are only revealed after 50 years.

The literature prize is given to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

So, why, for instance, has the 81-year-old Nigerian, widely considered “the most significant African writer of the 20th Century”, been given short shrift by Nobel’s Swedish Academy over the years?

This year’s Nobel Literature Prize went to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. His works comprise 15 collections of poetry, among them The Great Enigma and The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer.

Transtromer’s austere, polished poetry exploring themes of seclusion, emotion and identity, won the nod of the Swedish Academy “because through his condensed translucent images, he gives us a fresh access to reality”.

The 2010 prize was claimed by Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, another European — leading to accusations that the Academy is biased against non-European writers.

Those claims were given more impetus by the fact that the highly secretive Academy comprises 18 members — all Swedes — who have exercised historical notoriety in picking writers who critics have deemed, on average, as “minor, inconsequential, transitional or obscure, with the bulk of their yellowing works out of print,” contends Burton Feldman in The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige.

The Academy, notes Feldman, has overlooked more deserving literary heavyweights — Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov and Vladimir Nabokov; Frenchman Emile Zola; and James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet.

Famous snubs also include America’s Gertrude Stein, Arthur Miller, John Updike and Virginia Wolf — creating a mazy understanding of the Academy’s selection process.

While nominations are by invitation from qualified persons and organisations, in Africa, there has never been a bigger brush-off than Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart, his seminal, prescient and introspective effort of 1958, is considered Africa’s best literary work yet.

Elegantly written in spare prose, sprinkled with cubicles of Igbo wit and axioms, the “archetypal African novel” set in colonial Nigeria as a canvas of modernity’s onslaught on culture has been read and studied worldwide, and its characters; the tragic hero Okonkwo, Nwoye, Unoka, Ikemefuna and Obierika, celebrated.

It has been translated into 50 languages. The most for any author, dead or alive.

In 2005, Time magazine named the “milestone in African literature”, Achebe’s magnum opus, one of the ‘best 100 English language novels written since 1923’ — the year Time was founded.

Things Fall Apart thus sits pretty on the shelf of noteworthy reads: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Ernst Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Harper Lee’sTo Kill a Mocking Bird.

While Achebe has been the perpetual laureate-in-waiting, Africa has had other Nobel Literature winners: Albert Camus, the French-Algerian (1957), even though Nigerian Wole Soyinka became the first African-born writer to win it 1986.

Soyinka is famous for his protest plays —The Lion and the Jewel, The trials of Brother Jero, Kongi’s Harvest, The Interpreters (a complex read), Season of Anomy; and fictionalised memoirs Ake andThe Man Died.

He was, however, awarded for his collection of poetry because he, “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence”.

Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, author of 50 novels, was honoured in 1988. Mahfouz survived an assassination attempt in 1994 from Islamic fundamentalists who were angered by his portrayal of God in Children of Gebelawi. He was honoured with a state funeral when he died in 2006, aged 94.

South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer became one of only 12 women Literature laureates in ’91. Among her works include A Guest of Honour and In the Heart of the Country, which dwells on political issues and psychological tensions of a racially divided Rainbow Nation.

Gordimer, now 87, was awarded because “through her magnificent epic writing she has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, been of very great benefit to humanity”.

Another South African, turned Australian, the recluse JM Coetzee who doesn’t drink, smoke, laugh much or eat meat, went to the Embassy of Sweden in Stockholm to receive his Nobel in 2003.

The author of the acclaimed Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace was awarded because he, “in innumerable guises, portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider” and his work features “well-crafted composition, pregnant with dialogue and analytical brilliance”.

But, give or take, are these laureates superior in edge, readership constituency, influence, readability, historical peg and overall contribution to understanding the arcane facets of cross-cultural literature in Africa than Chinua Achebe?

Few African writers, the aforementioned laureates inked in, have highlighted the continent’s glorious heritage, juxtaposing its post-modernity, colonialism and neo-colonialism better than Achebe.

And not just with Things Fall Apart.
Achebe’s other works, no less important, include The Trouble with Nigeria, his blunt and brave critique of 1984; A Morning Yet on Creation Day, his 1975 collection of poetry; and the essays Hopes and Impediments (1988) and Home and Exile (2000).

The successors of Things Fall Apart — minus Okonkwo, its protagonist — include No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah.

But it’s Things Fall Apart, dubbed “the most significant African novel of the last 50 years”, that remains the substratum upon which succeeding works of African literature were erected.

Indeed, Achebe’s body of work, in total, blends cultural, socio-political, religious and secular components to advance a deeper understanding of not only the Igbo, but African culture as well.

Feldman notes that the Swedish Academy casts a favourable eye on “activist writers” fronting visible social or political causes. Achebe has hardly been critical of his country like the exiled Soyinka and Gordimer.

In his will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that winners should have the most outstanding work in an “ideal direction”.

For a dozen years since 1901, the Nobel Committee interpreted a literary work’s “ideal direction” as a “loft and sound idealism”, universal interests that the snubbed writers — Achebe’s confinement to African cultures and Ngugi’s hangover with colonial themes — are seemingly short of.

During World War I, “ideal direction” equalled ignoring writers in combatant countries as a way of the Academy’s neutrality in the war, and hence the heavy roll call of winners from Scandinavian countries, which were not at war.

Since 1901, the Academy has never explained how winners are arrived at outside the citations. But favouring European authors has received criticism over the years, even in Sweden, which has more literature laureates than all of Asia.

To cement this perception, listen to Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who in 2008 told the Associated Press that “Europe still is the centre of the literary world”.

Asked why American writers rarely won, the last having been Toni Morrison, author of Beloved and Song of Solomon in 1993, he offered that “the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… that ignorance is restraining”.

In 2009, Engdahl was replaced by Peter Englund, who trashed Engdahl’s sentiments, agreeing that the Nobel Literature Prize was “Eurocentric” and that “we tend to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in European tradition”.

Englund, however, did not escape scathing criticism when that year’s winner was the obscure Romanian-German Herta Muller. Most professors of literature and critics, charged the Washington Post, had never heard of the authoress of Everything I Possess I Carry with Me.

Knut Ahnlund, a member of the Academy, resigned after Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek won in 2004. Ahnlund called her writing “a mass of text that appears shoveled together without trace of artistic structure”, adding that her winning had “caused irreparable damage” to the award’s standing.

That reputation had been dented when the 1997 Prize went to Italian leftwing playwright Dario Fo, a lightweight even in his country, noted The Independent.

The Academy sometimes favours neglected genres from which illustrious luminaries are picked to re-divert attention to them.

Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie and American dramatist Arthur Miller were favourites that year, but their winning would have been “too predictable, too popular”.

Graham Greene and Nabokov were passed in 1974 in favour of Swedes Eyvind Johson and Harry Martison, a joint win, despite their glaring anonymity beyond Swedish borders a the time.

Something else.

To win the Literature prize, you must have one toe in the grave: Transtromer is twisting 80. Vargas Llosa is 75. The youngest ever winner was Rudyard Kipling, he of the famous poem, If.

Kipling won the 1907 Nobel Literature Prize at 42 “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration”.

If Professor Chinua Achebe never wins, he will go down as one of the greatest “laureates who never was.” And Nobel Prizes are no longer awarded posthumously.