In praise of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2011

Published: October 17, 2011

Nobel literature prize winner, Tomas Transtromer smiles near his wife Monica during a news conference in his home. PHOTO: REUTERS

In case you didn’t notice, it was the annual literary maelstrom last week. The Nobel Prize in Literature was handed to somebody, Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden.

The announcement evoked a global response which entailed synchronised hair pulling, angry tweeting, cynical literary opining in the millions. On the whole, it turned out to be an entirely predictable show of hostility from a world of outraged readers. The ruling sentiments went something like this:

“Oh right! So Roth/Murakami/Pynchon/Nadas/Adonis is going to lose out AGAIN to somebody I’ve not even heard of?” “Wait, are you saying, like, this guy Transformer-whatever, haha, his work is better, GREATER than Philip Roth’s?” “Poet? What’s that they write? Poetry?”

These objections (boasts? personal indignations?) that surface every year sound strange to me, and I have never been sure of them. Consider.

(1) Shouldn’t literary awards be an opportunity for the world to look for equally deserving but under-celebrated/under-read writers?

(2) Shouldn’t this be an opportunity for us, the readers, to go beyond what we are accustomed to reading and discover writers we have not heard of?

(3) Shouldn’t this spur the perennially urgent cultural discussion about what makes good literature, good books, and what must we do as a literary community to make good books possible? Also, what kind of parameters must we use to judge global literature, where much is at stake especially for languages from relatively ‘less powerful’ countries?

(4) Shouldn’t the awards give the publishers in the English speaking world a chance to question their growing tendency toward the mega-sellers (à la Twilight) at the cost of translations and works of high literary merit that sell in average numbers?

(5) And let me add a personal declamation to this laundry list: I am bloody thrilled that it was a poet. If memory serves right, the last poet to be honoured on the Nobel awards night was the marvellous Wislawa Szymborska in 1996. That’s right. 15 years ago.

To be sure, I am no fan of the Nobel Prize. So often it has been awarded for political correctness of the contenders rather than their literary merit that I find the whole idea of defending it quite laughable. Many deserving writers have been shunned for being on the wrong side of the political divide, while some indisputable winners were omitted for reasons unbeknown to anyone but the Nobel jury itself — and let’s not even mention all the writers who have been rewarded because their heavy politics weighed in favourably on their literary contributions. So I see little point in decrying the “Eurocentricty, anti-Americanism, or flawed judging process” of the Prize. However, one should welcome the exceptions, and this time around it was an exception for many right reasons (see 1-3 above). And to celebrate the occasion, here’s a poem by the new laureate which swept me off my feet in my brief initial survey of his luminous and deeply meditative work

April and Silence

by Tomas Tranströmer

Spring lies abandoned.

A ditch the colour of dark violet

moves alongside me

giving no images back.

 

The only thing that shines

are some yellow flowers.

 

I am carried inside

my own shadow like a violin

in its black case.

 

The only thing I want to say

hovers just out of reach

like the family silver

at the pawnbroker’s.

Translation from the Swedish by Robert Bly

Like some other of Tranströmer’s work, this poem is a lovely meditation on the limits of language. The final stanza most clearly identifies where language fails experience: the narrator understands the value of the silver he sees but it is out of his reach. The beautiful implication of this metaphor is its being his family silver: therefore, it will never mean much to anyone else anyway. Truth, in that sense, has no extrinsic basis. It is arrived at individually.

Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer

A writer and translator who teaches creative writing at LUMS.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Taimoor

    Great write-up. Thank you for introducing us to this lesser-known writer. And I totally agree with you on your first three points about introducing writers from different cultures and thrusting them into the mainstream media. Its only good for the readers.Recommend

  • Taimur Arbab

    well put forward…wonderful poet and one should discover more of his works..although I think, Adonis should have shared the prize too…he is one heck of a writer and it would have gone well with the Arab Spring in the back drop…Recommend

  • Rational Mind

    Well my dear you could possibly defend the justification befined Nobel Literature Prize but how can one understand giiving Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obamma ?
    I will not be surprised if next peace prize goes to Bush or to Tony BlairRecommend

  • Amadeus

    If you could’ve somehow included Anna Hazare and Imran Khan in this piece, then you would’ve had hundreds of retarded comments and views. =P

    Good stuff, btw – atleast someone’s writing normal stuff. cheers.Recommend

  • http://www.ahmadhammad.com Ahmad Hammad

    Bilal:
    I read your article. In the following lines, I have tried to compose a few points which just randomly came across my contemplation while giving a coveted read to your valuable blog.

    1- Yes, a poet winning a Nobel Prize energizes poets around the globe. Being a poet, I too was very happy that after a looong time at last, a poet has been conferred upon.

    2- Pakistani (Urdu/English/Regional Languages’) poet too should try their level best to win at least ONE nobel prize, for there’s a plethora of Pakistani poets who are at ‘their’ side of the political side, if this is the prime concern at all.

    3- All the Nobel Laureate poets’ works should be rendered in Urdu for the Pakistani readership. I can find Geetanjli only. What’s the problem with other works? And what disease Pakistan Academy of Letters is remedy for, if not introducing world literature to the Urdu readership?

    4- Pakistan Academy of Letters MUST arrange a dialogue of the Pakistani writers with the newly conferred upon Nobel laureate of Literature.

    5- Other departments too should arrange the dialogue with the Nobel Laureates according to their field e.g. Physics, Medicine, Peace etc…

    6- The poem you’ve included at the end of your article is beautiful, but at our side of the world, far more beautiful poems have been written on this subject i.e. the incommunicativity of words…

    7- It was a feast to read your valuable and scholarly blog dear Bilal.

    Live Long!
    HammadRecommend