The Nobel Prize to Abdulrazak Gurnah: literature or militancy?

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s award has caused division on social media. It is not the first time that the Nobel jury has awarded not only literary value

The presentation of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the little-known Abdulrazak Gurnah has generated a lively debate among literary purists and among those who believe that writing is not detached from the political and social context. Here, two of our writers, the polemicist Sindbad the Sailor and Michela Fantozzi, continue the conversation.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: by Sindbad the Sailor

Carneade, who was he? The rhetorical question that Alessandro Manzoni asked himself befits Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Prize  award winner for Literature, born in Zanzibar but long since transplanted to Great Britain. Just to say, in Italy only some of his books were published – Paradise, Il disertore, Sulla riva del mare – over 15 years ago by  Garzanti. But now they are obviously out of print. In the rest of the world – apart from Britain (where he teaches at Cambridge), India and his homeland – Abdulrazak Gurnah is equally little known.

Norwegian academics don’t like to follow the crowd

They have awarded the highest honor to Bob Dylan and Dario Fo, men of great depth in the history of music and theater, but who it would be difficult to call writers. And they never granted it to Philip Roth, who died without having the Nobel, neither to Haruki Murakami or Don De Lillo, still alive and waiting. The Nobel jury, in the case of Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has been awarded several times domestically but not at the global level of recognition of many other writers, wanted to emphasize, so to speak, the political nature of his work more than its literary value. The highest literary honor was in fact granted to him for…

“his uncompromising and compassionate ability to understand the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees  in the gap between cultures and continents”

In short, a very politically correct prize. On the day it was announced, it even provoked several dissident voices on The Nobel Prize’s official Facebook page. A certain Francis Villagomez Perez launches the provocation: “A Nobel without compromise? So how about Julian Assange? Why hasn’t he won the award despite being nominated many times? Would it have been too controversial?” Another, Salah Ahmad Sari, criticizes the fact that the literary value of a work isn’t the only judgement : “All Nobel laureates make sense except in literature, because it has been politicized and has become a matter of taste of a few arbitrators.” The final judgment from Emelyn Arana, who on the same Facebook page asks: “Is the Nobel Prize losing its prestige?”. Nagging doubts that deserve reflection.

And this make us wonder: if Haruki Murakami were African and wrote about migrants and colonialism, instead of being Japanese, would he have already won the Nobel Prize?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: by Michela Fantozzi

“No, I don’t think colonialism is the main theme of my books. I thought of writing about things I know, things that move me and that interested me.” This is how Abdulrazak Gurnah, Nobel Prize for Literature 2021, responded to a BBC journalist twenty-three minutes after the announcement of his win. Colonialism is in Gurnah’s work and was the contex which the author lived through during the uprooting from his land, an experience that he was able to describe through the characters of his books. This is what the German writer  Helena Janeczek wrote in L’Espresso, where she claims that she found the same type of forced exile that her family suffered from Poland following the Nazi persecution in his books. Janeczek says that the Nobel committee’s justification for awarding the prize to him “for his ability to understand the effects of colonialism” are misleading and reductive, because he talks about universal human experiences in his stories. But what is colonialism if not a human experience?

The only ones able to brand colonialism as a mere sociological argument are the colonizers. “Politically correct” has become a stamp of meaningless quality, a phrase that does not consider the merits of the arguments, but nips them in the bud.

It is an excellent ploy for those who resort to provocation to try and win an argument. On the other hand, Gurnah was not the first writer to receive the Nobel Prize for socially relevant reasons. Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the prize for “for his image of resistance, revolt and the defeat of the individual”, Herta Muller for “representing the world of the dispossessed” and  Doris Lessing  for having “put a divided civilization under scrutiny”.

Alfred Nobel established that the literary prize should go to those who “have produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction”

So what is the reason for all the indignation unleashed (not only) on social media for this year’s winner? Perhaps it is the recognition of such a relevant award to an African author and moreover associated with the theme of colonialism, which pinches European consciences and makes one feel uncomfortable. “Colonialism is a political topic, from sociological research, it is not literature,” writes Barone Rosso on social media, averagely miffed from the comfort of his home. Or perhaps it is the racist presumption of African inferiority and so, by winning such a coveted award, unleashes feelings of less-majesty in the minds of most? “This gentleman was born in Tanzania but lives and works in the UK. He teaches at the university. He does not wander among zebras, on the contrary”, Mrs. C. is quick to point out on social media with many good intentions. So, let us ask ourselves: if the prize had been awarded to a European Nobody, would there have been this wave of contempt for him?


Translated by Adam Clark

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