Should the Nobel Prize be considered an honor or be seen as calculated lip service?
The annual Nobel Prize winner for literature has been chosen; Abdulrazak Gurnah. His novels have been lauded; Paradise published in 1994, By the Sea published in 2001, Gravel Heart published in 2017 and Gurnah’s latest novel Afterlives published in 2020.
Gurnah has written many more literary works from short stories and novels to essays, being a prolific author. The majority focused on his homeland of Zanzibar and the colonial and post-colonial East Africa. The Swedish Academy awarded Abdulrazak Gurnah the Nobel Prize “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
A cynical individual would say that the Swedish Academy is after “brownie-points” after their recent years of scandals. I am that cynical individual. While Gurnah’s novels are phenomenal and I do highly recommend them, the whiplash from the previous year’s laureates is palpable. Louise Glück is what you would expect from a Nobel Prize winner in literature; she has a great body of work, formidable poetry and prose, and is not controversial. Her predecessor on the pedestal, Peter Handke, however caused a roar of controversy.
For those unfamiliar; Peter Handke has been criticized as a denier of the Bosnian genocide, the ethical cleansing of Bosniak Muslims during the Bosnian War, as well as support for Serbia and denial of war crimes committed by the nation. The choice of Handke as a laureate of the Nobel Prize in literature 2019 came after several allegations of sexual harassments and later convictions of the husband of one of the sitting board members in 2018. The ensuing fallout, including the Swedish Academy’s financing of the couple’s cultural club Forum, caused several board members to resign in protest. The resigning members’ reason was that the Academy had not done enough against the sexual misconduct. All in all, it was a chaotic time for the institution and the “higher” culture of Stockholm.
This is the background of the latest years of scandals of the Swedish Academy. Did the remaining board learn from their lesson in the 2018 sexual harassment scandal? Apparently not since their response to the criticism of Handke boiled down to a “we know best, shut up.”
So I am very skeptical of the Academy’s choice of prize winner this year. Not because of the quality of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novels. I highly recommend them. I am skeptical because of the nature of the Swedish Academy; their dripping hypocrisy, the board’s constitution, and the very institution itself.
First of; the Swedish Academy prides itself on its political neutrality. It is one of the ways they have chosen controversial winners in the past, including Peter Handke. You can call it Aesthetics over Ethics; the craftsmanship is more important than the morals. It is easy to see why I therefore have a problem with the reason the Academy gave for Gurnah’s Nobel Prize. “…the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” is a positive criticism of how Gurnah depicts political and moral situations.
Secondly; the decision making body of the Academy, the people choosing one of the most prestigious literary awards, is composed almost exclusively of native Swedes for a few exceptions, all of them above the age of 50. You could argue for experience and competences of the board. Then again, the only reason why new people have joined is because of the mass resignations of previous board members.
Which leads me to the final point; the Swedish Academy is itself an institution born from dear old Swedish and western imperialism and colonialism. The taste, because that is what all criticism boils down to, of old Swedes is what decides the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is it any surprise that someone would be skeptical of their choice? If not to try to create a clean slate for their reputation, the reason and choice of Gurnah reeks of neo-exoticism. Make no mistake here; almost all of the sitting members in the Academy have a literary or academic lineage.
What I am trying to say is this; the Swedish Academy is a representation of everything that is wrong with the current “high” culture: a choice that can be seen, and which I see, as blatant lip service is made with thinly-veiled exoticism as its reason to show up a progressive picture of a conservative institution. In Orientalism Edward Said spoke of the romanticized and reductive view the west has of the east. It can be said for the west’s view of anything not western. Despite the best effort of the Swedish Academy of trying to present a post-colonial face, the western-centric taste of its members bleed through. Even if the self-knowledge of the exoticism and the exotic taste makes it ironic, it does not change the fact that it is.
The entire history of the Swedish Academy, both old and recent, put their judgment into question. The traditional fetishization of non-western art and culture, turned from the stereotypes of bush warriors to the hardships of immigrants taints any prize given by them. Should not Abdulrazak Gurnah stand on his own merits? He deserves the prize, but does the Swedish Academy deserve to give it?