For Whom Nobel Tolls

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

I wrote an  article about the Nobel Prize and submitted it to Lakbima News for which organ I was writing a regular weekly column. The editor declined to publish it. He was fired soon afterwards and the paper eventually closed down. The Curse of Colman!


My esteemed editor, Rajpal Abeynayake,  scholar and gentleman, wit, raconteur  and all-round good egg, has written about the Nobel prize quite often. Some time ago he wrote something erroneous about the Nobel prize for literature.  I hesitated to comment at that time because I  was scared of Mr Abeynayake – I had, timorously from the sidelines, witnessed those bloody three-way battles between Rajpal, Malinda and Dayan.

I’m still afraid, but I can’t restrain myself. Sorry! I recall that Raj wrote praising the Chilean 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Actually Vargas  is Peruvian. I first tried to read Vargas  in Spanish in his own home city of Arequipa (beautiful colonial buildings towered over by snow-capped mountains). I was not very successful. I was not very successful either reading him in English – he does not use a straightforward linear chronology, he is somewhat “experimental”. Nevertheless, Vargas is undoubtedly a great writer as well as being very handsome and elegant. Beginners should start with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter which is very funny. There was a movie version featuring Peter “Columbo” Falk. Wish I could find a pirate copy in Majestic City.

Whatever about his qualities as a writer, Vargas’s politics are less than attractive. He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990. Vargas is one of those people who has moved from the far left to the neo-con right. Castro’s pal , Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was once a great friend but they have not spoken since Vargas punched Marquez in the face in 1976. Vargas once supported Castro but during his presidential campaign he was described as “Thatcherite”.

Rajpal wrote about the Nobel again in an editorial: “When the international community is witnessing the award of Nobel Peace Prizes to presidents of countries who have worked towards peace, eschewing war, it must be rather disconcerting to the Rajapaksa administration that having ushered in peace, albeit by means of war, all that the government is getting from a significant part of the international community is ceaseless opprobrium.”

In the same issue, he also wrote about  the Nobel in his  column. After discussing some of the odd choices for the Nobel Peace Prize Rajpal remarks: ”John Pilger,  who in fact got his Nobel for literature, and not for his contribution to the cause of peace due to his numerous explanations on how governments including that in his home country cause wars.”

John Pilger is an excellent chap in many ways, but it would be a great surprise if he ever won the Nobel prize for literature. He has not done so yet. While enjoying many of his articles,  I have often been somewhat put off by the hyperbole and the whiff of self-serving sanctimony.

In the New Statesman dated May 14 2009 when victory over the LTTE was at hand, Pilger compared the Sri Lankan government’s actions to those of Israel in Gaza: “From the same masterclass you learn to manipulate the definition of terrorism as a universal menace, thus ingratiating yourself with the ‘international community’ (Washington) as a noble sovereign state blighted by an ‘insurgency’ of mindless fanaticism. The truth and lessons of the past are irrelevant. And, having succeeded in persuading the United States and Britain to proscribe your insurgents as terrorists, you affirm you are on the right side of history, regardless of the fact that your government has one of the world’s worst human rights records and practises terrorism by another name. Such is Sri Lanka”.

Note the scare quotes. It was not a real insurgency then,  John? His general line on Sri Lanka is that although the Tigers may have spilled some blood they had no choice because even before the LTTE was invented there was a master plan to obliterate the Tamil race.

When Obama, an inexperienced politician who had hardly settled his buttocks on the presidential chair in the Oval Office, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I was stunned enough to do a little research.

Kissinger won it in spite of bombing the shit out of Cambodia and delaying the end of the Vietnam War for purely presentational purposes. The Kissinger- Le Duc Thọ award prompted two dissenting Committee members to resign. Thọ declined to accept the award, stating, “There was never a peace deal with the U.S. We won the war”.

Other dodgy winners include that notable warmonger Theodore Roosevelt, Zionist terrorists (sorry – freedom fighters) and ethnic cleansers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini have been nominated in the past.

Foreign Policy magazine listed people who did not win it. These include  Eleanor Roosevelt, Vaclav Havel and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before his death in January 1948, but never made the final cut. In 1948, following Gandhi’s death, the Nobel Committee declined to award a prize on the ground that “there was no suitable living candidate” that year. Later, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell these Asiatic types apart.

The Nobel Peace Prize is not the only prize  to have attracted controversy. Look at those who haven’t won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ibsen, Strindberg, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Mark Twain, Joyce, Pound, Henry James, Graham Greene, Nabokov, Borges (who deserved a prize for his description of the Falklands War – “two bald men fighting over a comb”), Philip Roth.

There have been some dodgy choices among the 108 literature laureates. I would have no argument about Tagore, Mauriac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saramago, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Kenzaburo Oe, William Golding, Saul Bellow, Derek Walcott and Albert Camus. Halldor Laxness may be an obscure writer from a nation, Iceland, with a small population, but I have enjoyed two of his novels, The Atomic Station and The Fish Can Sing, although Magnus Magnusson’s new translation seemed a bit eccentric compared to the one I read in the 1960s.

Doris Lessing has lived a long time and has an impressive opus, although she has not produced anything in a long time that is other than eccentric. I love VS Naipaul’s writing, although much of his essays I would disagree with and the man himself seems disagreeable. Although Raj would not agree, I believe the  award to Orhan Pamuk was well deserved and drew attention to a national literature not well-known in other countries. Others are on the doubtful side.

John Steinbeck ignited my passion for American literature when I was a pre-teen and I still hold him in great affection, but I do not think he was up among the greats,  even when he won the prize. I wonder if Toni Morrison, for all her many virtues, is a worthy recipient. Who reads Elias Canetti today? Were Galsworthy and Sinclair Lewis any more than middlebrow entertainers? What was the claim to fame of Pearl S Buck?  Mikhail Sholokhov was a fraud. What about Henryk Sienkiewicz? Who would remember him if his novel Quo Vadis had not given Peter Ustinov the opportunity to ham it up as Nero in the movie version? Pär Lagerkvist is a name on everyone’s lips! Think of Anthony Quinn as Barabbas.

Will recent winners like Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (not much available in English), and Elfriede Jelinek be remembered in perpetuity or will they be consigned to the same limbo as Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson (joint winners in 1974) or Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Grazia Deledda, Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont, Jacinto Benavente, Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan, Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam, Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf?

Winston Churchill has claims to be considered a great man – but 1953 prize for literature!? His histories are self-serving and ghost-written.

Perhaps John Pilger would not be an unlikely laureate after all.