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Nobel Prize As Mother Of All Controversies

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The Nobel Prize in Literature is Alfred Nobel’s dynamite gift of controversy that can blow up the world.

British playwright and the 1926 Nobel Prize winner, George Bernard Shaw, said: “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”

It is a prize that has turned into a yearly ritual of polemics and brickbats once a novelist or playwright or poet or lyricist as in Bob Dylan is announced as the winner of the much coveted prize.

A partisan of the crowned writer can blow his vuvuzela in loud celebration thusly: “My writer is bigger than yours!”

Antagonists would always damn the Swedish Academy as a secret cult whose ways can be equated with neither rhyme nor reason.

Since the first award of the Nobel Prize in 1901, the entire world has been seized by the jugular without any foreseeable respite.

The Nobel Prize upped the ante in surprise when none of the writers named by the bookies at Ladbrokes in Britain as possible winners of the 2021 prize could gain the diadem.

It was such a shocker when the Swedish Academy anointed the unheralded Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

Some of the outraged critics cried that Abdulrazak Gurnah is unknown while others deposed that he is obscure, even as many others exclaimed that they had never read any of his books.      

For me, Abdulrazak Gurnah must rank amongst the most noble of winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

No serious controversy whatsoever really dogs him, and attention-seeking is definitely not his forte.

It is little wonder then that not many of the literati could dwell much on his person or his writing oeuvre when he was acclaimed “in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction”, as the Nobel Prize evinces.

Even when he was reached on phone with the breaking news of his winning the coveted prize, he thought somebody was playing pranks on him, that it was all a joke!

For a novelist who had been hard at work since 1987 when he published his first novel, Memory of Departure and has published nine other novels thus far, Abdulrazak Gurnah is definitely unafraid of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, to borrow the title of Alan Sillitoe’s long story.

Abdulrazak Gurnah had earned some attention when his 1994 novel Paradise was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and Whitbread Prize.

He won my attention and deep respect for being associated with Susheila Nasta’s trailblazing magazine, Wasafiri, a magazine I have written for.  

Incidentally, my nomination for the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing was for “Cemetery of Life”, a short story published by Wasafiri magazine.

Wasafiri is family, so Abdulrazak Gurnah’s winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature also belongs to me.

Anybody who is annoyed by this chest-beating should aspire to write for Wasafiri!

It is indeed worthy of celebration that Abdulrazak Gurnah’s uncommon consistency has won for him the most coveted of prizes – the Nobel.

It is neither here nor there joining the pundits in debating whether Ngugi wa Thiong’o ought to have won the prize instead.

This is as unnecessary as the unending Nigerian debate on the Nobel Prize between partisans of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.

The discomforting truth of course is that some eminent writers who could not win the Nobel Prize in Literature included Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald etc.

Remarkably each of these deathless writers were officially nominated for the prize but could not win it while some relatively unknown worthies won the Nobel Prize in Literature over these masters, namely Mommsen, Eucken, Heidenstam, Spitteler, Reymont, Karlfeldt, Jensen, Martinson etc.

With the global gravitas of the Nobel nobody now reckons with the fact that it is in fine a Swedish literature prize.  

The worldwide attention given to the Nobel Prize in Literature has thus brewed the broth of the mother of all controversies.

As the legendary wag Oscar Wilde knows, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

In winning the Nobel, Abdulrazak Gurnah is on the front burner of global discourse, and his books that people neglected earlier are now being sold for as much as $1000 per copy on Amazon.

It gladdens my heart to end that Abdulrazak Gurnah has joined the esteemed class of the 118 notables awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature from 1901 to 2021, made up of 102 men and only 16 women.     

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is of course not an end in itself because the one factor that assures the classic value of a literary life is Father Time and not any prize, including the Nobel.

The assurance lives in me that “my family brother” of Wasafiri magazine Abdulrazak Gurnah will go the distance of literary immortality after pocketing the $1.14million prize money!    

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