Tag Archives: Nobel prize

A Business Trip to Sweden

“Since he had to go on a business trip to Sweden anyway, he decided to use this opportunity to finally get rid of some rather annoying obligation, and to pick up that silly medal from those pedantic academics who were permanently pestering him on the phone and via the media…”

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Nobel Prize for Literature 2016 for Bob Dylan

Robert Allen Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016. Congratulations!

I am really amazed by the echo of this news in the electronic and print media and in the social networks. Since a few days, the choice of Dylan by the Nobel Committee in Stockholm and the following discussion, the question if Dylan has “deserved” the prize or not, and why not a “real” author has received the award, has side-lined much more important events in the world.

And since everyone did it, I feel somehow also entitled to give my two stotinki regarding the question of the “worthiness” of this years’ Nobel Prize Winner.

Just for clarification: I grew up with Bob Dylan’s songs, I love and adore him, and without the shadow of a doubt he is one of the most important living cultural icons on this planet. I am not saying more, just this: Bob Dylan is in a way larger than life, and for sure also much more relevant than an award or the people who decided to give him this prize according to criteria that are usually difficult to understand.

Let me say a few words about the criteria on which the decision for the award is based. This prize is not a kind of “Writer’s World Championship” where the best author with the best literary work is supposed to win. The surprise of the public that Dylan has won this year comes in my opinion from the fact that few people are aware of the criteria. The testament of Alfred Nobel that defines the criteria that should be the basis for the award, is very unclear. The two main reasons to award the prize to an author seem to be a certain literary value of the work, and the ideal/idealistic direction of the work – again: this is a very vague and in the original Swedish very unclear formulation; are there any interesting or valuable works of literature that are not idealistic?

Are those people wrong who argue that – without being disrespectful to Bob Dylan – the Nobel Committee should have awarded the prize to someone who devoted his life to produce “serious” literature, not a singer-songwriter? I admit, these people have a point, but they missed what I said in the previous paragraph: this award is NOT primarily a literary excellence award, and therefore such an argumentation (Dylan vs. “real” authors) is futile.

Should we take the Nobel Prize for Literature for so important as most of us obviously do? I think not. It comes with a lot of money – good for the author! -, but it comes also with a lot of obligations (speeches, interviews, requests, media attention, etc.) that make it more difficult for the prize winner to produce anything meaningful after he/she got the award, simply because it will be much more difficult after the award to focus on his/her work. So it is a very mixed blessing, but I am sure Bob Dylan will survive also that.

The main reason why I am not so interested in this prize anymore is the very long list with decisions that have obviously nothing to do with the literary value of the author and his/her work. A committee that awards Mommsen instead of Cechov; Prud’homme instead of Tolstoy; Benavente instead of Kafka; Pearl Buck instead of Joyce; Echegaray instead of Proust; Heyse instead of Henry James; Eucken instead of Musil; Spitteler instead of Edith Wharton; Quasimodo instead of Cavafy; Churchill instead of William Carlos Williams; Scholochov (for a book that was written not by him) instead of Babel; Solzhenitsyn instead of Shalamov, Avram Terz, or Herling; Cela instead of Borges or Nabokov; or Neruda, the NKWD henchman and member of the Trotsky assassination team, instead of Mandelstam, Sutskever, Celan, or Ingeborg Bachmann? I just don’t think very highly of the competences of a committee that comes to such decisions. 

Another reason why I am upset about the choices of the Stockholm Committee is the quota according to certain criteria that obviously exist. Or statements like that of a very influential member of the Committee who bluntly stated years ago, that American literature and American authors (from the United States) are in general uninteresting and shallow and not worthy to receive a Nobel Prize, and that as long as he is in charge never ever will such an author be considered for the prize. It seems that the Nobel Committee wanted to say this year: “OK, we cannot any longer ignore American literature, and Bob Dylan was the best author we could find. Leonard Cohen would have been of course the much better poet among the singer-songwriters, but you know, this year we had to give it to an U.S. author.” – Obviously, this award is also meant as a slap in the face of all important living American authors, as Aleksandar Hemon pointed out correctly.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has a lot to do with (literature) politics, and comparatively little with literature. The discussion about the Nobel-worthiness (or un-worthiness) of Dylan is therefore a rather pointless matter. The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded a few times to authors who deserved it, and many times to people who were just second-rate authors. Therefore, we shouldn’t consider the award as something necessarily related to literary excellence.

If Bob Dylan, a life-long pacifist, should accept the Prize that is funded with money that comes from the royalties for the invention of deadly weapons, is another question. He doesn’t need the money, so it would be great to see him standing true to some of his early convictions and politely refuse the Nobel Prize.

The best comment I read on the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, because it is making fun of the Committee in Stockholm that considers itself as oh-so-important, comes from Gary Shteyngart. On Twitter he commented: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.”

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Passport

glm_iv1

This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

 

When in 2009 the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Prize for Literature to Herta Müller, whose opus magnum The Hunger Angel had just appeared in print, I thought that at least this one time the jurors in Stockholm had shown not only that they are able of a decent choice, but that sometimes they have even a sense of timing. Because The Hunger Angel marked the point when Herta Müller got also outside the German-speaking world the attention she deserves. Her first translated work available in English, The Passport, got some favorable reviews but was commercially not a big success.

Müller’s works – and The Passport is no exception – are almost exclusively set in Romania, the country in which she was born and grew up in a small German village (Nitzschkydorf) during the time of the more and more paranoid dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Although Romania didn’t adopt a policy of ethnic cleansing after WWII against the ethnic Germans living there since centuries like most other Eastern European countries did, the situation for the Banat Swabians (Donauschwaben) and the Saxons in Transsylvania (Siebenbürger Sachsen) was far from comfortable.

Most of them had embraced the Nazi ideology during the war, many enrolled in the SS, and the whole community had to pay a high price after the war for this act of treason as it was seen: a big part of the men and women from the German community were sent as slave workers to Siberia for five years and more. Many of them died there and those who survived came back considerably aged and without any hope or illusion for the future. In Siberia they had seen what they before refused to see: that people are able to do any act of cruelty or moral sordidness for a piece of bread.

This is the historical backdrop of The Passport, a very short book of only 100 pages, with chapters that are short or even very short. But this book is anything but a fast and easy read.

Windisch, the village miller, has decided to apply for a passport for himself and his family. The passport is necessary if you want to travel abroad or emigrate to (Western) Germany, as the Windischs plan. Windisch is already waiting more than two years and a half, but doesn’t seem to make any progress with his application, despite the fact that he is bribing the mayor with sacks full of flour. But the flour is not enough, the priest (he has to issue the birth certificates) and the militiaman (his support is crucial for receiving the passports) also need to be bribed.

When Windisch finally understands what these two men want, he is sending his daughter to them…After she sleeps with them, the passport will be finally arranged. In the last chapter we see the Windisch family coming for a visit to their home village after their emigration. While many other Germans emigrated too, a few, like Konrad the night watchman have not. Konrad has even married and intends to stay in Romania, despite all the problems.

Müller arranges her material in a very interesting way. The short chapters have sometimes the character of stand-alone short stories, sometimes they are like vignettes that allow the reader for a moment to catch a glimpse of something that he usually would not see.

One of the most remarkable things in Müller’s book is the language. Very simple and short compact sentences full of poetic, sometimes surrealistic metaphors. The German title would be literally translated “A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world”, obviously a local saying that is quoted in an early conversation between Windisch and Konrad by the latter. Windisch retorts that a man is strong, stronger as the beasts, but later after his daughter Amalie has slept with the village officials, he is repeating Konrad’s sentence as if to remind the reader that he was wrong and too optimistic about the strength of man.

The story of Windisch and his family is intervowen with other stories: the story of Rudi the glass maker who is not right in his head, and his parents; the story of Dieter, Amalie’s friend, who is shot dead while obviously attempting to cross the Danube to Yugoslavia; the story of Konrad, the night watchman; the story of the skinner and his wife; the story of the carpenter; and also stories that are told like anecdotes from the past: the story when the king passed by with his train before the war and the village couldn’t sing the welcome song because the king was asleep and his entourage insisted on not waking him up for some villagers; and there are even stories about the owl that was seen in the village and that the villagers consider as a sign for something to happen; and most disturbingly the story of the apple tree that was eating his own apples before the war and that had to be burned therefore to drive away all the evil.

There are signs of alienation everywhere. When Windisch passes the church, he wants to go inside to pray. But:

“The church door is locked. Saint Anthony is on the other side of the wall. He is carrying a white lily and a brown book. He is locked in.”

There is no hope to be expected in this world from the church, St. Anthony, or even God. Later in the book, when we learn about the disgusting priest, who uses his power position – without birth certificate no emigration – to extort sex from the women he fancies, we understand why.

There is alienation of course between the Romanians and the Germans; the Romanians are contemptuosly called “Wallachians” by the Germans and vice versa the Romanians wonder how, after Hitler, it is possible that there are still Germans in Romania. But it is not only for the Romanians that the Swabians feel contempt, the same goes for their feelings for the Germans in Western Germany, especially the women. “The worst Swabian woman is still better than the best over there.”

Children cannot escape this paranoid world of the village where the Securitate, the mighty intelligence network of the secret police is watching  over everything. Amalie, who works as a schoolteacher, is instructing the kids:

“Amalie points on the map. “This land is our Fatherland”, she says. With her fingertip she searches for the black dots on the map. “These are the towns of the Fatherland,” says Amalie. “The towns are the rooms of the big house, our country. Our fathers and mothers live in houses. They are our parents. Every child has its parents. Just as the father in the house in which we live is our father, so Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu is the father of our country. And just as the mother in the house in which we live is our mother, so Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of our country. Comrade Nicolae Ceausecu is the father of all children. And Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of all children. All the children love comrade Nicolae and comrade Elena, because they are their parents.” ” 

(It is rather embarrassing that The Times Literary Supplement (!) claims in its review: “Every such incidence of misdirection is the whole book in miniature, for although Ceausescu is never mentioned, he is central to the story, and cannot be forgotten.” – This happens when reviewers don’t read the book they are supposed to write about.)

Even worse is the alienation between men and women. Men use their position to get what they want from the women: sex. In Siberia, Amalie’s mother was a whore. She was selling her body for food and warm clothes in order to survive, and now Amalie is stepping in her mother’s shoes, spreading her legs for the priest and the militaman to get herself and her family out of this place where all the children love the parents of the country so much.

It is revealing that when she was a child and was almost raped by Rudi, her father was blaming her, not Rudi: “Amalie will bring disgrace down on us.” The conversation that the drunk Windisch, his wife and his daughter have over lunch after Amalie’s visit to the priest and the militiaman, is rather depressing, but it shows exactly how things are between men and women in this village, in this society:

“Windisch’s wife sucks the small, white bones. She swallows the short pieces of meat on the chicken’s neck. “Keep your eyes open, when you get married,” she says. “Drinking is a bad illness.” Amalie licks her red fingertips. “And unhealthy,” she says. Windisch looks at the dark spider. “Whoring is healthier,” he says. Windisch’s wife strikes the table with her hand.”

The Passport is a difficult, sometimes even depressing read. A paranoid system like Romania under Ceausescu is doing the things to people that Herta Müller is describing in this book. It is poisoning even the most private feelings, activities, relationships. It is easy to understand that the author’s honest, unvarnished description of German village life in the Banat didn’t bring her many friends in her own community. Until recently she was still the target of smear campaigns of former Securitate agents and Danube Swabians who want to paint a nicer picture of their own past – for whatever reasons.

If you look for an easy, fast, superficially enjoyable book – this one is not for you. But if you like to read a beautifully crafted, multi-layered book about the human condition in times like ours, I can heartily recommend The Passport to you. It is also a reminder that there is absolutely nothing to feel nostalgic about for any dictatorship like Ceausescu’s Romania was.

 

mullerstory1_1542933f

Herta Müller: The Passport, transl. by Martin Chalmers, Serpent’s Tail, London 1989 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature

Tresilian

The Middle East is one of the most important geo-strategic regions in the world. This is due to its geographical position, its richness in oil and gas but also due the nature of the conflicts that are taking place in this region and that have a deep impact on a very big number of people even outside this region. It is therefore reasonable and even important to have an understanding of what is going on in this region that is again very much in the media focus after the Arab Spring and several armed internal conflicts.

What surprised me most when I started to live in the Middle East for several years was that the reality I was facing there is so much more complex and interesting than what an average informed citizen of a western country would expect if he would only follow the media reports in his or her home country. There is a comparatively small number of journalists or political analysts in the West that have the knowledge, the access to media and the ability to explain the complexities of life and politics in the Middle East to the public in their countries in a way that is free of a patronizing attitude and also unbiased regarding the “official” narrative that is always dividing the world neatly into the “good” and the “bad” one’s, i.e. those that are considered worthy to be supplied with the most modern military technology and those who are on the receiving end of this annihilation machinery. The reality is unfortunately more complicated than this Manichean world view suggests: there are no “good” one’s – it’s frequently just about which of the groups involved in a conflict is serving our interests better. Nothing personal, it’s all just about oil, gas and political influence.

In order not to leave the field exclusively to those “experts” who still perpetuate the Orientalist perspective about which Edward Said was writing long and controversial books, it would help already a lot if we would perceive the Middle East as a region where people live that are not really different from us. And what would be easier than to perceive them in the way they are expressing themselves, for example by art, literature, cinema and all other kind of cultural activities. There is a thriving cultural industry in all these countries and since I am dealing here in this blog mainly with literature, I just want to point at the fact that there is an extremely interesting contemporary Arabic literature that is to a growing part available in other languages (some of it is even written in English or French).

In my last blog I wrote up on an interesting novel by Ibrahim al-Koni. I am absolutely convinced that reading his books or the excellent books of Hisham Matar (he writes in English) can give a reader a much better understanding of what’s going on in Libya nowadays. The same is true for the writings of Algerian writers like Boualem Sansal or Yasmina Khadra. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is presented in western media usually in a very partial and biased way. Those who read Ghassan Khanafani’s stories or the poetic books of Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest poets of our times will understand that there is also another side of the story. Readers of Alaa al-Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building” or Edwar al-Kharrat’s novels will have a deeper understanding of the problems of the Egyptian society.

And these are just a few examples. I am not saying that reading novels, stories and poems can replace the serious study of history, political science and other relevant subjects. But great literature can give you an insight in a culture that goes indeed very deep and sometimes much beyond rather dry textbooks. And beside from that it is just sheer pleasure to discover great works like the “Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz, the “Diary of a Country Prosecutor” by Tawfik al-Hakim, the autobiography of Taha Hussein, or the dark masterpieces of Abdurrahman Munif, especially his “Cities of Salt”.

Those who want to have a short overview about Arabic literature have now an excellent opportunity to discover this interesting literary continent. David Tresilian’s “A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” gives on less than 200 pages a very reader-friendly overview on the history of Arabic literature. In several chronological chapters we learn about the main epochs in modern Arabic literature and are presented the main writers with a very short presentation of their major works.

Tresilian also pays special attention to poetry, the problems of the diaspora, and the development of a publishing industry in a surrounding where authors and publishers are always threatened by censorship or even worse (many Arab authors have been in prison at least once or have been threatened in one way or another for expressing themselves in their books). Book distribution is also a challenge that is hampering the outreach of contemporary Arabic literature in the Middle East, especially outside the capitals. On the other hand, publishing houses in Beirut (the main publishing place in the Middle East) and Cairo seem to thrive and there are a growing number of book fairs and bookstores that attract a growing number of readers. After the Nobel prize was awarded to Naguib Mahfouz, there has been also a (modest) translation boom in the English and German speaking countries at least.

Unfortunately the book is not covering the Maghreb region, although some of the most important Arabic authors origin from there. Literature that is written in other languages than Arabic is equally not considered, even when the authors come from the region. (That excludes for example the excellent novel “Beer in the Snooker Club”, by Waguih Ghali) These limitations were obviously necessary in order not to exceed the size of a “Brief Introduction”. Within these limitations the book is highly recommended to those who wish to discover one of the most interesting literary “continents”.

David Tresilian: A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature, Saqi, London San Francisco Beirut 2008

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.