You are on page 1of 10

benedict anderson

Notes on the Nobel Prize for Literature

he decision to bestow the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature

on the Chinese novelist Mo Yan raises once again the ticklish
question of the patterns of distribution for these laurels at the
global level. In almost every country, of course, the awarding
of literary prizes has typically been contaminated by national politics,
the formation of literary cliques, religious convictions, racial prejudices,
double standards and the ideologies of the period. Is this the main reason why, over the 110 years of announcements of winners of the Nobel
Prize for Literature, there has never been an awardee from any country
in Southeast Asiawhile every other region has had its turn?
The history of the Prize can be divided into three parts: the era of world
domination by Western European powers, the Cold War and the contemporary era of globalization. During the first period, between 1901 and
1939, almost all the prizes went to writers from Western Europe, ranked
in the following order: six for France; five for Germany; and three each
for Sweden, Italy, Norway and the usa. Britain, Spain, Poland, Ireland
and Denmark had two apiece, and there were solitary representatives of
Belgium, Finland, Russia, Switzerland and India (see Table 1, overleaf).
Regional favouritism was then quite clearScandinavians took one
third of the prizes. But among them only Norways Knut Hamsun was a
world-class author. Tagore from colonial India was an interesting oddity,
the only prize-winner (1913) ever to represent a colony, and Asias solitary star until 1968, when Japans Kawabata was successful. Americans
only began to win in the turbulent 1930s, two of them after Hitler came
to power, and their calibre was quite low. At the same time, one important European country was spectacularly discriminated against: Russia/
new left review 80 mar apr 2013



nlr 80

Table 1: Distribution of Nobel Prizes for Literature, 19012012

No. of




Prudhomme, Mistral, Rolland, France,



Mommsen, Eucken, Heyse, Hauptmann,


Sweden / Italy / Norway / usa

Lagerlf, Heidenstam, Karlfeldt / Carducci,

Deledda, Pirandello / Bjrnson, Hamsun,
Undset / Lewis, ONeill, Buck

uk / Spain / Poland /
Ireland / Denmark

Kipling, Galsworthy / Echegaray, Benavente

/ Sienkiewicz, Reymont / Yeats, Shaw /
Gjellerup, Pontoppidan

Belgium / Finland / Russia /

Switzerland / India

Maeterlinck / Sillanp / Bunin / Spitteler /



Gide, Mauriac, Camus, Perse, Sartre,*



Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Bellow,


uk / ussr

Eliot, Russell, Churchill, Golding /

Pasternak, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn,

Sweden / Germany / Spain

Lagerkvist, Johnson, Martinson / Hesse,

Sachs, Bll / Jimnez, Aleixandre, Cela

Italy / Chile / Greece

Quasimodo, Montale / Mistral, Neruda /

Seferis, Elytis

Poland / Denmark / Ireland / Iceland

/ Yugoslavia / Israel / Guatemala /
Japan / Australia / Bulgaria / Colombia
/ Czechoslovakia / Nigeria / Egypt /
Mexico / South Africa

Miosz / Jensen / Beckett / Laxness /

Andric / Agnon / Asturias / Kawabata /
White / Canetti / Garca Mrquez / Seifert /
Soyinka / Mahfouz / Paz / Gordimer



Naipaul, Pinter, Lessing

Germany / China

St Lucia / usa / Japan / Ireland / Poland

/ Italy / Portugal / Hungary / South
Africa / Austria / Turkey / France / Peru
/ Sweden

Grass, Mller / Gao, Mo

Walcott / Morrison / Oe / Heaney /
Szymborska / Fo / Saramago / Kertsz /
Coetzee / Jelinek / Pamuk / Le Clzio /
Vargas Llosa / Transtrmer

* Sartre, awarded the prize in 1964, refused it.

anderson: Nobels


ussr. Prior to Lenins revolution, the discrimination was based on

Swedens traditional rivalry with, and dislike of, imperial Russia; after
1919, Communism became the key factor. Characteristically, the only
Russian winner, Ivan Bunin, lived in exile in Paris. In the last years of
Tsarism, the ancient giant Tolstoy was ignored, maybe because of his
radical anarchist political stance, along with Chekhov and the poet
Aleksandr Blok. Later on, the great playwright Bulgakov, the poets
Mayakovsky and Mandelstam, and the novelists Gorky, Andreev and
Zamyatin were all passed over.
The Nobel Committee is made up of five members of the eighteen-strong
Swedish Academy, a self-perpetuating body of royal creation whose
members serve for life, with the primary duty of enhancing the purity,
vigour and majesty of the Swedish language. The Committee prepares
a shortlist drawn from the nominations of relevant academic and professional literary bodies around the world, and from the Academy itself
and its living laureates, for an eventual majority decision of the eighteen
members in plenary session. Unsurprisingly, then, the Academys literary taste was usually conservative. Its members had no time for Surrealist
poets or great experimental modernists like Proust, Joyce, Musil, Brecht,
Rilke, Cafavy, Benjamin, Roth (Joseph), Woolf, Lorca, or Swedens own
shocking playwright August Strindberg.1 Nobels testamentary dedication to work of an ideal or idealistic leaning disqualified some of
these, and others such as Ibsen or Zola, Hardy, Lawrence or Dreiser
and at the same time helped to shape one of the most mediocre genres
of twentieth-century literature, the Nobel citation itself, with its vapid
humanism rendered in accumulations of clich that would disgrace the
literary pages of a self-respecting provincial newspaper. In addition, one
has also to reckon with the fact that in those years the Committees linguistic competence was quite limited, and translations of modern literary
works from non-European languages were very few. This structural hindrance surely explains why China (Lu Hsn, for example, or Lu Ling)
Popular feeling in Sweden ran directly counter to the Academy, and in 1912
Strindberg was awarded what came to be known as the Anti-Nobel Prize, a sum
of 50,000 kronor raised in small contributions through a public appeal to honour
the playwright, an ardent anarchist who in 1884 had sketched out a plan to assassinate the countrys king. The award was made by the Swedish Social Democratic
leader, Hjalmar Branting, following a massive torchlit procession of workers to
mark Strindbergs sixty-third birthday. (See Strindbergs Letters, vol. 2, edited and
translated by Michael Robinson, London 1992, p. 790.)


nlr 80

and Japan (So seki, Akutagawa, Tanizaki) were not plausible candidates
for the prizes.
The Cold War era exhibited quite different patterns. No prizes were
awarded between 1940 and 1943, the decisive years of the Second World
War. But from 1944 on, the Committee was inevitably affected by the
collapse of European imperialism and the struggle between the Soviet
Union and the United States for world pre-eminence, which divided
Europe into two hostile blocs. Colonies could be ignored, but independent new nation-states, seated in the un General Assembly, could not.
Europes pride in its cultural superiority over the provincial usa, in
the new era of its own political and economic decline, led to a greatly
enhanced desireespecially in London and Parisfor the translation and publication of important literary texts from outside Europe.
Meanwhile Swedens position and outlook were quite different from
the pre-war years. The country had stayed neutral between the Axis
and Allied powers, while Denmark and Norway were occupied by Nazi
armies, and this neutrality earned the contempt of the Allied victors of
1945. The horrors committed by Hitlers regime in the name of racism
and Aryan superiority greatly undermined the prestige of right-wing
nationalism (including right-wing literature) all over Europe. During
most of the Cold War, Sweden redesigned its neutrality in important
new ways. The country developed the most advanced social-democratic
society in the world and tried to present itself as offering a third possibility between ruthless American capitalism and ruthless Soviet state
socialism. Approaching the Third World states was a good way to build
Swedens new reputation as a moderately left-wing, peace-loving country,
especially productive of top officials for the un.
Between 1944 and 1991, fifty Nobel Prizes for Literature were awarded,
and their distribution was quite different from that of the previous era.
Fifteen countries had won prizes between 1901 and 1939, but twentyeight were successful during the Cold War. France, with six winners
(though Sartre turned it down), was still Number One, but only narrowly. Next came the us with five, the uk and the ussr with four each;
Sweden, Germany and Spain with three; and Italy, Chile and Greece with
two. Single champions came from Poland, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland,
Yugoslavia, Israel, Guatemala, Japan, Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia,
Czechoslovakia, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico and South Africa. In this listing
one can see that the pre-war Scandinavian bloc had drastically declined.

anderson: Nobels


On the other hand, Stockholms gaze now extended to East Asia, the
Middle East, South and Central America, Africa and Australiaonly
Southeast Asia was still invisible. The Committees politics had changed
in some important ways. The first thing to notice is that it discriminated
against right-wing authors: Cline and Malraux in France, Borges in
Argentina, Mario Vargas Llosa (only forgiven in 2010), Evelyn Waugh
and Anthony Powell, for example. The ridiculous exception was Winston
Churchill. On the other hand, independent leftists such as Sartre, and
even communists like Neruda, were all right, just so long as they didnt
come from the ussr or the prc. Sholokhovs was an isolated case, coming just after the relative thaw of the Khrushchev years: the other three
Russians were dissidents and/or exiles.
The other major change was the comparative status of languages. In the
pre-war world, German, French and English were the prestige languages
in real life and in world literature. But after 1945, Germany was split
in two, and Germanophobia was everywhere. The linguistic prestige of
France was in a slow decline. English in its various forms was becoming
the overwhelming world-hegemon. It is striking that although France
remained the top prize winner, none of its champions came from the
ex-French overseas empire in Indochina, West Africa, the Maghreb or
the Caribbean. On the other hand, the British dominions and former
colonies did very well: White for Australia, Beckett and later Heaney for
Ireland, Soyinka for Nigeria, Nadine Gordimer (and later Coetzee) for
South Africa and ultimately Derek Walcott for the British West Indies
(Saint Lucia). Writers who went into exile in, or migrated to, the us and
the uk also wrote in EnglishMiosz, who had defected to the West
thirty years before receiving the prize; Brodsky; Canetti, who had left
Bulgaria for Britain at the age of six; and so on. One continuity with the
previous era, however, was the overlooking or ignoring of authors whom
todays critics from many countries greatly admire: for example Japans
Abe Kobo, Russias Nabokov and Akhmatova, Anglo-Americas Auden
and the uks Graham Greene.
In the almost quarter-century of the post-Cold War era we can see some
interesting novelties. First, the end of French authority (one prize),
American hegemony (one prize), Russian prestige (no prize). Onetime winners have been the Anglophone West Indies, the us, Japan,
Poland, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, South Africa, Austria, Turkey, Ireland,
France, Peru and . . . Sweden. The exceptions are a revived Germany


nlr 80

(two prizes: Gnter Grass and Herta Mller, though not Hans Magnus
Enzensberger) and China (two, with Mo Yan and Gao Xingjianthough
the latter, winner in 2000, had settled in France by the late 1980s). The
uk was in the lead, with three prizesbut of the British winners, only
Harold Pinter has been a native, while V. S. Naipaul hails from the West
Indies and Doris Lessing grew up in Rhodesia.

Odd one out

And Southeast Asia? Structurally, the region has been exceptionally
variegatedno dominant language, no religious unanimity, no political
hegemon. In the colonial era, sections of it were ruled by British, French,
Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and American imperialists. Gabriel Garca
Mrquez could stand for largely Spanish-speaking, Catholic South and
Central America, Walcott for the (ex-British) Caribbean, Tagore for (exBritish) South Asia, Naguib Mahfouz for the Islamic Middle East, Wole
Soyinka for Africa (where British imperialism was the most powerful)
and perhaps Orhan Pamuk for Turkey-in-Europe. But no Southeast
Asian writer could count on being a symbol of the region as a whole.
During the Cold War, Southeast Asia was unusually torn in ideological and military terms. Almost all of its states experienced long periods
of armed conflict between communists and anti-communistsleading
to right-wing or military dictatorships in the Philippines, Thailand,
Indonesia, Singapore and Burma, and three successful communistgoverned states in Indochina.
There was also serious big-language loss in the region over the
twentieth century. The us made sure that Spanish largely disappeared
in the Philippines, Indonesia quickly dispensed with Dutch, militarized Burma got rid of English and Indochina set French aside for
two generations. The contrast with Africa is striking: most ex-colonial
states in that continent kept up the colonial languages as languages of
state, even when promoting local languages as symbols of particular
nationalisms. For this reason, Southeast Asian writers were unlikely to
have energetic allies in Europe, the Western hemisphere or even in the
Islamic world. One final curiosity is worth noting: Indonesia, by far the
largest nation-state in Southeast Asia, was colonized by the Netherlands,
the smallest and least significant of the European imperialist powers,
with a language used only by its own citizens. Worse, or better, still,
Holland has never won a Nobel Prize, putting it on a par with Europes

anderson: Nobels


other permanent losers, Albania and Romania (if we count Canetti

for Bulgaria). Thus The Hague was in no position to lobby hard for
Indonesia, even if it wanted to.
One might have expected that big colonial powers would support writers
from their former possessions. But Paris was more interested in exFrench West Africa, the ex-French Maghreb and still-French Caribbean
than in remote Vietnam which had defeated France in a long and deadly
war of liberation. The usa, always with a cultural inferiority complex
towards Europe, preferred to count as American prize-winners those
exiles whose literary credentials were already very high and who had
taken on us citizenship (Miosz from Poland, Brodsky from Russia). The
Philippines was completely ignored or looked down on, even though the
dominant language there was American. London had too many other
options because of the size and spread of its former empirethe many
ex-dominions (Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand) as well as
sites like Nigeria, Ghana, India, the Caribbean, Pakistan, that
Malaysia and Singapore, which kept English as a state language, were
not seen as important.
What about the effects of linguistic nationalization in Southeast Asia?
Most of these nationalizations were carried out in order to achieve
national solidarity, but almost always the decision on which language
should become national had the effect of favouring the power of particular linguistic-demographic-political groups. Burmans and Vietnamese
had every card in their handssheer numbers, geographical density,
higher education, political powerso that the decision to nationalize
Burmese and Vietnamese was natural, even if it meant marginalization
of many minority groups. Bangkok had no such natural dominance, so
that the imposition of Bangkok Thai could only be achieved by authoritarian means. At the end of American colonization, the largest linguistic
group in the Philippines spoke various dialects of Cebuano, but Tagalog,
spoken by people in the national capital and surrounding regions, had
to be imposed by coercion, with mixed results. Resistance came from
many quarters, in favour either of Cebuano or American English as a
lingua franca. In Malaysia, Malay also had to be forcibly imposed by the
politically dominant Malays, but has been resisted by Chinese, Indian
and North Bornean peoples, who speak either languages of alien origin
(China, India) or a lingua franca (English).


nlr 80

The only country to achieve an uncontested national language that is

also the lingua franca is Indonesia. In literary terms, it is hard to find any
important Indonesian writer who does not automatically use this bahasa
Indonesia, albeit with local inflections. The language does not favour any
particular group. Hence the variety in the ethnicity of the national literary
lineup: Kwee Thiam Tjing (Hokkien Chinese), Iwan Simatupang (Toba
Batak), Chairil Anwar (Medan Minangkabau), Amir Hamzah (Malay),
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Javanese), Eka Kurniawan (Sundanese), Putu
Widjaja (Balinese) and so on. From my limited experience, I believe that
Indonesia is, in literary terms, the most creative country in Southeast
Asia precisely because it has merged lingua franca and national language in an uncoercive manner. By contrast, coercive imposition (by
philistine politicians and bureaucrats) encourages a stupid type of neotraditionalism as well as hostile rejection. Hence significant minorities
prefer to write in English, with the intent of rejecting neo-traditionalism,
but also of reaching a perhaps friendly international audience.
But nationalization of whatever sort also means a kind of seclusion.
None of the national languages of Southeast Asia has any transnational
aura. The global system makes sure that Burmese, Vietnamese, Lao,
Thai, Khmer, Tagalog and even Malay are for local users only. Even in
the case of bahasa Indonesia and bahasa Melayu, which are close cousins,
Indonesians rarely read Malay literaturewhich they think of as provincial and old-fashioned, as well as ethnicwhile Malays in Malaysia
tend to think of Indonesian Indonesian as a chaotic amalgam of many
languages. So no likely solidarity in the face of Stockholm. Seclusion also
means that any chance of a Nobel Prize requires translation into the big
languages the Swedes can handle. But nationalist-philistine ruling elites
typically dont read good literary works, and rarely think about training
really good translators. Translation is not understood as an art, but simply
as a technique. One reason why great Latin American writers get Nobel
Prizes is that there is a first-class group of bilingual (SpanishEnglish),
professional translators who are widely honoured. Southeast Asia, as a
region, and as a group of individual countries, has nothing like this.

Were there ever plausible Southeast Asian candidates for Nobel Prizes?
I am not competent to say anything decisive about this. The national
hero of the Philippines, Jos Rizalsurely the greatest literary figure

anderson: Nobels


produced by his countrywas executed by the Spaniards in 1896, five

years before the Nobel Prizes started to be awarded. If he had lived till
he was sixty, would he have had a chance? I think not, even though he
wrote in one of the important languages, because no seriously antiimperialist writer from any colony was acceptable until after the Second
World War (the Nobel Prizes are given only to living writers). The marvellous, mystical-Islamic poetry created by the Medan Malay aristocrat
Amir Hamzah in the 1930s would never have been taken seriously in
Stockholm, and he was quickly gone, murdered by criminal revolutionaries in the first year after Indonesias declaration of independence. His
work is exceptionally difficult to translate, not least because of its religious
bent, andso far as I knowhas never been professionally translated.
Neither the Dutch colonial state nor the Republic of Indonesia did much
to recognize him. But it is possible to imagine that, translated effectively
into French or English, the poems might, in principle, be winners in the
post-Cold War eraif only he were still alive.
The final possibility is surely Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whose name
started to be canvassed by his supporters in Europe from the 1980s on.
No one concerned will deny the fact that Pramoedya is easily the greatest
prose writer in bahasa Indonesia, with an astonishing output of novels, short stories, plays and essays in literary criticism over a forty-year
period, roughly 19481988. If one tried to explain why he was repeatedly
passed over by the Stockholm Committee, one could offer a number
of arguments. First and foremost was his political stance as an activist in the Indonesian revolution for independence, and later on as an
independent leftist who wrote mostly in the vein of socialist realism.
During the early 1960s, he regularly attacked conservative and liberal
fellow-Indonesian writers and intellectuals for their reactionary politics
and their attachment to the West. A number of his writings were fairly
quickly translated into Chinese, Russian and some lesser languages in
Eastern Europe and the ussrs non-Russian components. But even if he
had then been translated into English, he would never have been acceptable to Stockholm, not least because the Communist Party of Indonesia
(of which Pramoedya was actually not a member) was the largest such
party outside the Communist bloc.
One might have thought that Pramoedyas chances would have been
improved by 1980, since he had spent the years 1966 to 1979 in the
archipelago of prisons created by the Suharto dictatorship following


nlr 80

the vast massacre of communists and communists in 196566. All

the more so, in that he managed to write the famous Buru Quartet
of novels during his years in the concentration camp on the remote
island of Buru. In fact, all of his many works were banned during the
entire thirty-two years of Suhartos rule, and even today they are still
technically proscribed, though the ban has only rarely been enforced.
But, so far as I can tell, there has never been a Nobel winner who has
spent many years in prison (without ever being tried for a crime). It is
also probable that Pramoedya was ill-served by old friends who decided
to rush out an English translation of the Buru Quartet, essentially for
political and human-rights reasons, by an Australian activist who was
not competent for the task. Pramoedyas prose style is unlike that of
any other Indonesian writer, and his black laughter is especially difficult to turn into English. Furthermore, the greatest of his writingshis
collections of extraordinary short stories from the 1950swere left
largely untranslated. After the end of the Cold War, he won a Magsaysay
Award (1995) and the top Fukuoka Prize (2000), but both awards were
met with unforgiving hostility by Indonesias ruling class and many of
its anti-communist littrateurs and intellectuals. Only after his death
did he become accepted as his countrys grandest modern writer. Too
late for Stockholm . . .

This is an expanded version of the Foreword to Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf and
Mohammad Quayum, eds, Imagined Communities Revisited: Critical Essays on AsiaPacific Literatures and Cultures, Kuala Lumpur 2011.