By Kamau Mutunga
The 2011 Nobel Literature Prize has already been awarded, and Africa’s Chinua Achebe, perennially taunted as a worthy contender, has to wait another year.
The same goes for Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was heavily tipped by literary punters to win last year. That was curious. The nominees are only revealed after 50 years.
The literature prize is given to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
This year’s Nobel Literature Prize went to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. His works comprise 15 collections of poetry, among them The Great Enigma and The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer.
Transtromer’s austere, polished poetry exploring themes of seclusion, emotion and identity, won the nod of the Swedish Academy “because through his condensed translucent images, he gives us a fresh access to reality”.
The 2010 prize was claimed by Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, another European — leading to accusations that the Academy is biased against non-European writers.
Those claims were given more impetus by the fact that the highly secretive Academy comprises 18 members — all Swedes — who have exercised historical notoriety in picking writers who critics have deemed, on average, as “minor, inconsequential, transitional or obscure, with the bulk of their yellowing works out of print,” contends Burton Feldman in The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige.
The Academy, notes Feldman, has overlooked more deserving literary heavyweights — Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov and Vladimir Nabokov; Frenchman Emile Zola; and James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet.
Famous snubs also include America’s Gertrude Stein, Arthur Miller, John Updike and Virginia Wolf — creating a mazy understanding of the Academy’s selection process.
While nominations are by invitation from qualified persons and organisations, in Africa, there has never been a bigger brush-off than Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart, his seminal, prescient and introspective effort of 1958, is considered Africa’s best literary work yet.
Elegantly written in spare prose, sprinkled with cubicles of Igbo wit and axioms, the “archetypal African novel” set in colonial Nigeria as a canvas of modernity’s onslaught on culture has been read and studied worldwide, and its characters; the tragic hero Okonkwo, Nwoye, Unoka, Ikemefuna and Obierika, celebrated.
In 2005, Time magazine named the “milestone in African literature”, Achebe’s magnum opus, one of the ‘best 100 English language novels written since 1923’ — the year Time was founded.