The week in books

The Guardian - Review - - Review - Katy Guest

No­bel odds and odd­i­ties

Kazuo Ishiguro was a sur­prise choice as 2017 No­bel lit­er­a­ture prize win­ner, but only be­cause his odds were 50/1plus; given the dom­i­nance in its lineup of lau­re­ates of one sex, con­ti­nent and lit­er­ary form, he is thor­oughly in keep­ing with tra­di­tion. Only five of the 18 win­ners be­tween 2000 and 2017, for in­stance, have been women, while 12 of those lau­re­ates have been Euro­pean. No fewer than 14 have been nov­el­ists or short story writ­ers, with two play­wrights, a poet, a song­writer and a his­to­rian mak­ing up the rest.

When Sara Da­nius took over the top job at the Swedish Academy, the award­ing body, in mid-2015, she in­her­ited a roll of hon­our with glar­ing im­bal­ances in re­gion, race, gen­der and lit­er­ary genre, sug­gest­ing sys­temic bias to­wards Europe, white male au­thors and the novel. It was ex­pected that the new broom’s panel would swiftly sig­nal in­tent (and guilt) by pick­ing au­thors who were far away from Swe­den, prob­a­bly not wed­ded to prose, and that there would be more women and the 22-year-long ap­par­ent ban on US win­ners lifted.

A woman and an Amer­i­can were in­deed Da­nius’s panel’s picks in 2015 and 2016 re­spec­tively, but more strik­ing were the gen­res they worked in: not the usual un­der­rep­re­sented ones, but non-fic­tion (Svet­lana Alex­ievich) and pop lyrics (Bob Dy­lan). What­ever the mer­its of se­lect­ing them, anoint­ing a white Euro­pean and a white north Amer­i­can did noth­ing to rec­tify the other long-stand­ing im­bal­ances – in fact they look a lit­tle worse, as “years since” fig­ures have in­creased. As a male Euro­pean (if Ja­pan-born) nov­el­ist, Ishiguro is even closer to the norm.

Se­lect­ing him (and not the favourite, Ngugi wa Thiong’o) means there has been no African win­ner since 2003, and that was South Africa’s JM Coet­zee; it’s now 31 years since the last black African win­ner, Nige­ria’s Wole Soyinka in 1986. The Arab world’s most re­cent rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Egypt’s Naguib Mah­fouz, came two years later in 1988. The same pe­riod of re­duced white bias and greater in­ter­na­tion­al­ism also saw back-to back wins for Derek Wal­cott and Toni Mor­ri­son (be­low) in 1992 and 1993. Two to­gether, and then noth­ing for 24 years: Mor­ri­son is still the last black win­ner from any coun­try.

South Asian au­thors also have strong grounds for feel­ing ag­grieved: Ja­pan and China have had their suc­cesses, and No­bel se­lec­tions have recog­nised both the Latin Amer­i­can “boom” and the si­mul­ta­ne­ous vi­tal­ity of African writ­ing (post-in­de­pen­dence or mi­da­partheid). But the sub­se­quent “em­pire strikes back” flour­ish­ing of post­colo­nial fic­tion in the sub­con­ti­nent has been en­tirely ig­nored – so that Rabindranath Tagore (1913) stun­ningly re­mains the last and only In­dian lau­re­ate. Merkel’s noise about Barnes While our own prime min­is­ter might need to take so­lace in a good book, Ger­many's An­gela Merkel is lov­ing lit­er­a­ture. Poised to open next week’s Frank­furt book fair, she was also in­ter­viewed at an event hosted by the Ger­man news­pa­per Han­dels­blatt re­cently, and asked which book has stuck with her. Ju­lian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, she replied: “I’ve read a book on Shostakovich, by Ju­lian Barnes, about a per­for­mance of [Shostakovich’s opera] Lady Mac­beth of Mt­sensk, which I at­tended a while ago in Salzburg. The book wasn’t par­tic­u­larly long, so I im­mersed my­self in it for two days ... What ap­pealed to me most about it was it al­lowed you to get to know the en­vi­ron­ment in which Shostakovich’s mu­sic was cre­ated. It also harked back to a con­flict I fre­quently en­coun­tered my­self when I was young.

“Shostakovich lived through dif­fer­ent phases of the Soviet Union’s cul­tural pol­icy and was faced with that ques­tion: ‘How hon­est, how open are you?’ His work had been banned, he wasn’t al­lowed to have it shown any­where, he was de­prived of his means of ex­pres­sion, ef­fec­tively. For these very rea­sons, I had de­cided pretty early on to be­come a physi­cist, be­cause the GDR couldn’t pos­si­bly mess with physics. But as a mu­si­cian, as a com­poser, your mu­sic might get classed as un-cul­tural [‘ un­kul­turell’] and be os­tracised. Peo­ple like this not only couldn’t ex­press them­selves freely, but they also had to fear for their lives. Ques­tions such as ‘How hon­est can I af­ford to be?’, ‘How strong am I?’, ‘When do I give in?’, ‘What am I ready to com­pro­mise on?’ – those are ques­tions Shostakovich was faced with a lot. And read­ing about a life like that made me re­alise once again what a bless­ing it is to live in a free coun­try.”

John Dug­dale

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