We were promised a less Eurocentric Nobel. We got two laureates from Europe | Maya Jaggi

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke may be fine writers but their awards only add to suspicions over the prize’s limited horizons

In the run-up to Thursday’s announcement of a double Nobel prize in literature, the head of the award committee, Anders Olsson, made a bold claim. “We had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature,” he said, “and now we are looking all over the world.”

This seems a curious assertion in light of the successive awards for 2018 and 2019 to Olga Tokarczuk (from Poland) and Peter Handke (from Austria). Whatever the merits of these writers – and Handke is certainly a controversial choice – or the congratulations due, the decision fails to demonstrate the widened perspective that Olsson promised. Taking him at his word, it invites questions about how diligent their search can have been, how knowledgeable the jury, and indeed how global a literary prize the Nobel can claim to be.

Founded in 1901 and with global ambitions, the Nobel has been painfully slow to open up to the wider world of literatures beyond Europe and North America. Not until the mid-80s had a single African, Arab or Chinese writer won, though Asia’s writers had a sparse presence in Rabindranath Tagore (1913) and Yasunari Kawabata (1968), and the Caribbean in Saint-John Perse (1960). Latin America fared marginally better, with Gabriela Mistral (1945), Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967), Pablo Neruda (1971) and Gabriel García Márquez (1982). For the late Chinua Achebe, the trailblazing writer from Nigeria who won the 2007 Man Booker International prize, the Swedish laurels that eluded him were quite simply a “European prize”.

The final 15 years of the 20th century saw moves to extend the prize – and the world stature it confers – to more writers from the global south. Laureates in those years included Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa. They also included the African American Toni Morrison.

Yet I cannot but sense glaring omissions. That writers of the stature of, for example, the Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Syrian-born Adonis and the Somali Nuruddin Farah are perpetually in the running without finding success lends credence to Achebe’s judgment about the prize’s limited horizons.

Ngugi has not only been a momentous figure through his principled stand on African languages (resolving, while detained without trial, to write fiction only in his mother tongue, Gikuyu), but his serial memoir, now stretching to four volumes, is already an elegant and essential testament to the pursuit of freedom through the pen. His 1,000-page novel Wizard of the Crow (2006) broke with the early realism of his early classics in its grotesque, absurdist satire on postcolonial kleptocracy, with echoes of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) and the great Latin American dictatorship novels. That it was written to be read aloud in bars and matatus (shared taxis) adds to its literary innovations.

Adonis, who since the death of Mahmoud Darwish in 2008 can lay reasonable claim to being the Arab world’s greatest living poet, is 89. His modernist experiments created a revolution in Arabic poetry comparable to TS Eliot’s in the anglophone world, in an art form with centuries of history that can still fill stadiums.

Nuruddin Farah’s fiction in English has developed over half a century from his early feminist classic From A Crooked Rib (1970) through three trilogies set during the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre (under whose rule the author was exiled) and its bloody aftermath, to his latest novel, North of Dawn (2018), which traced the dramas and dilemmas of a Somali family displaced to Norway by civil war. His impulse to “keep my country alive by writing about it” has created the complex and subtle oeuvre that led Gordimer to admire him as one of the continent’s “real interpreters.”

In 1998 Farah won the prize considered to be the US equivalent of the Nobel, the Neustadt, whose recipients have included others overlooked by the Swedish committee, including Raja Rao (1988), Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1994) and Assia Djebar (1996). To these names can be added many more, from Can Xue and Ma Jian writing in Chinese to George Lamming and Maryse Condé (who won last year’s alternative Nobel prize) from the anglophone and francophone Caribbean.

If the Nobel committee is sincere in looking “all over the world”, then such writers not only offer “outstanding work in an ideal direction” but also the formal and linguistic innovations that can arise from radically different perspectives and projects – such as representing one culture in the language of another. To read them, as a truly global literary award would spur and enable us to do, is not just to encounter “other” worlds, but to better understand the one we share – and ourselves.


Maya Jaggi

The GuardianTramp

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