In praise of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2011

Although I am no fan of the politicised Nobel Prize, I am bloody pleased that Tomas Tranströmer was awarded this year.

Bilal Tanweer October 17, 2011
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 A writer and translator who teaches creative writing at LUMS.
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