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A Dynamic Gift Of Controversy

Book-lovers across the globe were surprised when Dario Luigi Angelo Fo (March 24, 1926 – October 13, 2016) – an Italian actor, playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, and political campaigner for the Italian left-wing – bagged the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997. At that time, members of the Nobel Committee defended their decision, saying that had they honoured Salman Rushdie or Arthur Asher Miller with the Nobel Prize in Literature, their decision would be called Predictable or Popular. According to experts, this explanation reflects the attitude of the Nobel Committee while nominating the candidates for the Prize.

The same controversy came back in 2018 and in 2019. In 2020, the Nobel Committee nominated American poet and essayist Louise Elisabeth Glück for the Nobel Prize in Literature mainly to tackle the controversy. The Committee, seemingly, had no other option, but to avoid the Predictable-Popular Equation. Indeed, Glück is a Popular author. However, the Nobel Committee returned to its adopted formula in 2021. Hence, its decision to honour Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah (b. December 20, 1948) with the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature has triggered a fresh controversy. Gurnah has become the second Black African novelist to win the Nobel Literature Prize, after Nigerian novelist Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka (popularly known as Wole Soyinka), who had received the prize way back in 1986.

Abdulrazak Gurnah

Although Gurnah was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, he arrived in the UK in 1968 as a refugee mainly to escape persecution of Arab citizens during the Zanzibar Revolution. He initially studied at Christ Church College, Canterbury, and then moved to the University of Kent, where he earned his PhD, with a thesis, titled Criteria in the Criticism of West African Fiction, in 1982. From 1980 to 1983, Gurnah served as a lecturer at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria. He was also a Professor at the University of Kent‘s Department of English, until his retirement. As Gurnah spent several years in the UK as a refugee, one can find Identity Crisis in his works. In fact, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of Colonialism and the fates of the Refugee in the gulf between Cultures and Continents“.

Interestingly, his novel Paradise (1994) made Gurnah famous in the World of Literature. This Historical Novel was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prize. It is a fact that Paradise failed to win any of those two Prizes, it played an important role in helping the author win the Nobel. His Desertion (2005) and By the Sea (2001), too, were shortlisted for the Booker and Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

As a student, Gurnah left Tanzania during a period of crisis. He experienced how the Zanzibar Revolution had destroyed the Social Structure in his motherland. This experience has not only enriched his Thought Process, but also encouraged him to study History. His works are very much contemporary, as his novels Memory of Departure (1987) and Afterlives (2020) help one understand the three-decade-long Philosophical Journey of Gurnah. The 72-year-old Gurnah has successfully dealt with harsh reality, apart from boosting his power of imagination. His novels concentrate mainly on East Africa, where the Economic Crisis is portrayed through hunger and civil wars. Gurnah’s novel Paradise follows the story of Yusuf, a boy born in the fictional town of Kawa in Tanzania at the turn of the 20th Century. Yusuf’s journey has a multilevel dimension… he experienced the bloodbath in Central Africa, but also enjoyed his life. This way, Gurnah has glorified the Realism of English Literature.

Still, there is a controversy. The betting with names, such as Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Nuruddin Farah, was at its peak before the announcement regarding the Nobel Literature Prize made by the Committee. Maryse Condé of France and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o were also among favorites. Hence, the nomination of Gurnah has raised eyebrows and shrugs in different parts of the world.

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature was suspended following a sex scandal. Under scrutiny, the Royal Swedish Academy announced that it suspended the announcement of the Literature Award in the wake of a sexual harassment and assault scandal. Husband of a member of the Academy was allegedly involved in the scandal. The Academy triggered another political controversy by awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Austrian novelist Peter Handke in 2019. Handke is a controversial character, as he had supported the Serb atrocities during the Balkan Wars fought in the erstwhile Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001. Earlier in 2016, the Nobel Committee broke the tradition to honour Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize in Literature. From Fo and Dylan to Gurnah… the Nobel Prize in Literature always triggered controversies.

It may be noted that controversies related to the Nobel Peace Prize, too, have often reached beyond the academic community. Criticisms that have been levelled against some of the awards include allegations that they were politically motivated, premature, or guided by a faulty definition of what constitutes work for peace. Mohandas Karamchand ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948) – an Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist and political ethicist who employed Non-Violent Resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s Independence from British rule and in turn to inspire Movements for Civil Rights and Freedom across the world – possibly was nominated for five times. However, he did not receive the Prize. In 2021, journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression”. Their Noble Prize reminds us of German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (October 3, 1889 – May 4, 1938), who was the recipient of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in exposing the clandestine German re-armament, and also of American politician Cordell Hull (October 2, 1871 – July 23, 1955), the man known as the Father of the UN who won The Nobel Peace Prize 1945 “for his indefatigable work for international understanding and his pivotal role in establishing the UN“.

In fact, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola and Mark Twain did not receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sweden’s historic antipathy towards erstwhile Soviet Union was cited as the reason neither Tolstoy nor Anton Chekhov was nominated for the prize. During World War I and its immediate aftermath, the Committee adopted a Policy of Neutrality, favouring authors from non-combatant countries. Dario Fo is one of modern political theatre’s leading figures. His work is based on medieval farce and the buffoonery of commedia dell’arte, and it was performed not only in the theatre, but also in parks, prisons and schools. Fo was embroiled in many controversies in his native Italy – with the Government, the Police and the Catholic Church. His most performed plays include ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ (1970) and ‘We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay!’ (1974).

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