Friday, October 15, 2010

Chinua Achebe: The Unacknowledged Nobel Laureate

In lieu of Book Review

Oseloka Obaze*

Saturday 14 October 2006

Chinua Achebe: The Unacknowledged Nobel Laureate

Yet another chapter in the annals of the 120-year-old Nobel Prize has been written. The verdicts are in and on 12 October 2006, the Swedish Academy, handed out as it has done since 1901, its top prizes.

The 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature went to Turkey’s novelist Mr. Orhan Pamuk, who emerged from a short list of five candidates. The five, in keeping with tradition were drawn from hundreds of by-invitation-only nominations. The other officially unconfirmed four nominees -- which sources close to the Academy identified as a Syrian, an American, a Nigerian, and a Peruvian – would-have-been laureates, will meanwhile recede into anonymity for the next fifty years, when the 2006 runner-up status is made public.

Naturally, for excelling in his field of choice, Mr. Pamuk has my felicitations and congratulations. But his selection, like those of some before him, raises a fundamental question about the process, which is the premise of this piece.

I believe that once again, the Swedish Academy in doing honors has wittingly or unwittingly done an ignoble thing. I was one of those who waited with baited breath, to hear that the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature had after all these years been awarded to Chinua Achebe of Nigeria.

My wishes, and I presume, those of many other admirers of his, have yet again gone unfulfilled in the absence of the long-overdue acknowledgement of Chinua Achebe, “the most translated writer of African heritage,” as an eminent writer, literary giant not just in Africa but globally. But we take solace, that the tardiness in according Achebe such a recognition has neither diminished the man, his credentials or literary works.

But the question needs to be asked about this tenured gloss over of a literary icon, who has been cited as one of the “1,000 Makers of the 21 Century” responsible for defining “a modern African literature that was truly African.”

So far, four Africans have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, starting with Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka (1986), Egypt’s Nagib Mahfouz (1988), South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer (1991), and J. M. Coetzee (2003). I have read at least one work by each of them and, but for Mahfouz and Coetzee, I have been privileged to meet Soyinka and Gordimer just as I’ve been privileged to meet Chinua Achebe. I have never stopped wondering why these four and many of their non-African counterparts have been deemed superbly more qualified to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature, but not Chinua Achebe. This is a question that has dogged many other observers and aficionados of the literary world. Why so?

While I take no personal issue with the previous African winners of the coveted prize, I remain convinced that placed side by side with Achebe, the latter retains the superior edged in terms of his broad readership, influence, readability, historical premise, and overall contribution to understanding the esoteric and sanguine facets of cross-cultural literature. Considered strictly in the African context, Achebe more than any of the other African laureates, have highlighted Africa’s glorious heritage, opening up new vistas for the grasping of the finer points of her cultures, especially when juxtaposed with post-modern considerations, colonialism and neo-colonialism included.

But it is now well understood that like history, the use of literature is no longer immune from the vagaries of global politics and other considerations. Perhaps, because politics and other extraneous considerations have intruded into the process for determining who is deemed prima facie qualified for a Nobel Prize in Literature, it is no longer safe to assume as we once did, that merely being an exceptionally brilliant and talented writer will translate to a Nobel Prize. Making such an assumption precludes the recognition of the global dynamics and interplay of literature, politics and control of information flow.

While I also take no issue whatsoever with the 2006 prize winner, I stand convinced that were the parameters for the selection strictly delimited to literature, and were other considerations not factored in, then, Chinua Achebe, this time around should have emerged a winner. My strong beliefs were such, that as farfetched as it seemed, I was convinced that even if the selection process entailed a roll of the dice or a flip of the coin Achebe would have still won.

Having said this, I need to acknowledge my full understanding and acceptance that only one person will be selected in a given year for the Noble Prize in Literature. Likewise, I accept also, that for one selected person, there are several hundred potential laureates that will inevitably be passed up in any given year. I have a sense also, that even among those who make the short list in each category, the Swedish Academy strives for balance – gender, religious, regional, and cultural – in awarding the annual prize. All that is as should be given that we live in an era of political correctness. But here is the unanswered question: Does the selection process still reflect and take into account the values of global readership of a particular author? The answer is definitely a capital “NO”.

Let’s consider for one instance the following observation that appeared in The Wall Street Journal of 13 October:

After the death of the Egyptian Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz in late August, Orhan Pamuk took on the role of the world's best-known Muslim novelist, the West's literary guide to the East. Yesterday's honor will make him better known worldwide. If it also helps to make his vision of a modern Muslim society better known, so much the better.

The hint that there is more to why one wins the Noble Prize in literature could not be stronger than the oblique reference to Mr. Pgamuk being “the West’s literary guide to the East.” This fact resonates when one considers as noted by The New York Times, that “the Swedish Academy never offers nonliterary reasons for its choices and presents itself as uninfluenced by politics.” But is it?

The Swedish Academy in choosing the 2006 winner for literature stated, inter alia and in reference to his hometown and native city of Istanbul, that Pamuk “in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing cultures.” Translated, Pamuk essentially offers an insight into a greater understanding of the phenomena of the clash of civilizations, be it religious, ideological, or cultural. But interlaced with such a predisposition, are inherent political undertones. So, it would not be preposterous, to note that literary figures are now rewarded for using their writings to address certain trends and causes – be they humanitarian, political or otherwise. Indeed, those who posses the ingenuity or astuteness and readily show dexterity in this regard will definitely be recognized.

Whereas this piece is not about Pamuk, just as it is not about idolizing Achebe, one cannot gloss over the fact that Pamuk’s selection fits well into an emerging pattern. In February 2005, he reportedly told a Swiss magazine that "One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.” Coincidentally, the French parliament adopted a legislation that would make it a crime to deny that the massacre of Armenians in Turkey during and after World War II amounted to genocide on the same day Pamuk won the Nobel Prize. A happenstance or coincidence? Who knows? What is glaring, is that Pamuk and the French seem to be on the same frequency on this issue as does many segments of Europe, Sweden included. But the emerging trend did not start or end there. Several notable examples exist.

Pamuk’s unfurling of Turkey’s internal political contradictions is certain to sell well to those who seek to keep Turkey out of mainstream Europe. Consequently, his wining a Nobel Prize at this critical juncture would only buttress his bona fides as a legitimate social commentator.

From Britain’s Bertrand Russell (1950), Russia’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970) to Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek (2004) and Britain’s Harold Pinter (2005), it is increasingly clear, that an activist writer, and more importantly one associated to a visible social cause or political tendency is likely to be nominated and selected. With different strands and in different veins, both Russell and Solzhenitsyn were anti-establishment as they were illuminating writers.

When Jelinek won the literature prize in 2004 it was for revealing “the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” The 2005 winner, British playwright Harold Pinter, was renowned for his trenchant and acerbic criticisms of United States foreign policy and in particular, its military foray into Iraq. While such criticisms might not have played well in Peoria or Washington, they resonated across the Atlantic and were hardly considered outlandish in domains that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had glibly characterized as “Old Europe”.

It will not be totally uncharitable to state that Pamuk might have leveraged his introspective focus on the contradictions within Turkey into a Nobel Prize in Literature. After all, Turkey continues to represents the microcosmic model of the clash between the state and religion that has been extrapolated globally as the clash between fundamentalist Muslims and non-state actors and the rest of the world and in a different context, as re-emerging East-West tensions.

Meanwhile, let’s return to the core issue here.

Chinua Achebe who has been described as “one of the great intellectuals and ethical figures of our time” has remained true to his form and the genre of his novels. His works are perhaps less visceral, less obtrusive, less abrasive, but certainly, not apolitical in any sense of the word. He has concentrated mainly on his home country, Nigeria, without necessarily dabbling into the extremes, or career-enhancing foray of those belonging to “The Stealthily School of Criticism.” Unlike Pamuk, he may never benefit from the adjectival qualification or description of being a “straight-talking rebel whose views on his country's history have caused a storm both at home and abroad.” This, however, does not in anyway diminish the value of his literary contribution to his home country or mankind, nor his “keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and places”.

Those who have read Achebe’s work can fully appreciate that he elucidates the contradictions and pretentious truisms that continue to bedevil the African continent and Nigeria in particular. His books unceasingly evoke for the general reader, vivid realities of life and events. For instance, his often-mentioned book, “The Trouble With Nigeria” is a diagnosis, prophylaxis, and panacea for the ills that plague that nation. For an outsider, many of his works offer an unvarnished glimpse into the tribulations of Nigeria, their pages being in essence, the carousel on which tribal, religious and other forms of emotive partisan politics run. Hence, Chinua Achebe cannot be accused in the strict sense, of being reticent on political or social issues affecting Nigeria. Nevertheless, it is Chinua Achebe’s mastery and efficient use of language and superior story-telling abilities that sets him apart from his peers. Ironically, these seem not to rank high anymore in the pecking order of factors that sell or criteria that may evoke positive nominations for a Nobel Prize. How sad?

I am ready to plead a bias on this matter, but that bias stands firm in favor of the truth, subjective, as it may seem. It is also a bias shared by many of his readers, who are in the legion and span the globe. Until convinced otherwise, I am sure that some unstated selection criteria now in place, conveniently transcends the literary principles and considerations. Progressively, there seems to be a voluntary, if not deliberate tilt, towards the recognition of those who write controversial treatises and operate well beyond the bounds of traditional literature and academia. There is clearly a greater accommodation of forays into contentious geopolitical environments, and of those who by a large measure, write for a living, but are at heart rabid political activists. Here one could draw as an apt analogy the level of patriotism and loyalty to a profession or cause, accorded by a professional soldier and those expected of a mercenary.

Unquestionably, the lines between the two intertwined careers – the writer and the activist- have blurred sufficiently that an inattentive observer might be misled into believing that the standard norms are still very much applicable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. And this is borne out year after year by the choice of those selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yes, they are first and foremost writers and literary people; but it is no longer strictly for that reason or related accomplishments that they are recognized. Sublime advocacy for esoteric causes have trumped genuine literary accomplishments. And Chinua Achebe is a living proof, if one was ever needed. I do not believe that he stands alone in this category. He is also proof that the Nobel Prize nomination process, which is based strictly on “by-invitation-only”, may have become anachronistic and unrepresentative in our globalized context.

Lest I am accused of being a partisan, I accept that works of literature must have unique added values in order to be recognized. I accept also that form alone cannot be the basis for assessing the value of any literary work as they may be other redeeming values. But should such values be skewered more to politics and to a predetermined outcome than to the ennobling joy of literature, the sort that has been immortalized over time? Should we continually gloss over mainstream literature that brings the past into the full presence of posterity and posterity into the mindset of their forebears and eras long past, some of which are best forgotten?

Something will have to give.

For Chinua Achebe, 2009 will mark his half-century on the literary scene. He may not be prodigious in churning out books at two-yearly intervals as some authors do, but certainly, the full complement of his work remains a testimony to his masterful commitment and diligence. The quality and more importantly, the readability of his books makes them exceptional materials worthy of a Nobel Prize winner. For the time being, Chinua Achebe remains the great author and a Nobel Laureate-in-waiting, whom contemporary times, politics, and inexplicable considerations have selectively chosen not to acknowledge. But all said, on my nomination ballot and books, he has earned his prize as a literary legend.

The rest and the Swedish Academy’s glaring inattention, we will assign to history to be the judge.

*Mr. Oseloka Obaze, an aspiring writer, is a founding member of the Book Review Forum, which is dedicated to the promotion of books with Igbo and Afrocentric themes. He is also a supporting Member of the African Writers Endowment (AWE). From 1999 to 2005 he served on the editorial board of INYEAKA, the journal of Songhai Charities, Inc., a New Jersey community-based charity founded and run by Nigerians based in New York Tri-state area in the United States, first as its founding Publisher and later as the Editor-At-Large. He is also on the editorial board of The Amaka Gazette, the journal of the Christ the King College, Onitsha Alumni Association in America. His collection of poems, Regarscent Past: A Collection of Poems was among the top three finalists in the poetry category in the African Writers Endowment Publishing Grant Program for 2004. His novel, Happy Eulogy will be published in the spring of 2007. He reviews books and arts strictly as a hobby. © Copyright October 14, 2006.


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