Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but if they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or  Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 95 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog.

So let’s go on to my picks. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.

ONE: Poetry  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.

TWO: International Fiction Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, political and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably, immensely great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then there’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now.  His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.

Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.

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Nobel Prize 2015: My picks.

So originally I planned on mostly just reposting my old 2014 picks (because I, uh, picked wrong, as always), but I did end up modifying them. I mean, look, I have become very impatient with the insistence of the Academy to elect good-but-not-great white or European writers. I always found that the best attitude is not “who should win it instead” – but “has the winner deserved it?” Because the pool of excellent & important writers who cannot all win it, is just too large. And opinions vary. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. The best writer of the bunch is probably Claude Simon, with Jorge Semprún a close second, and writers like Jean Rouaud and Patrick Modiano following behind that. Simon is an undeniably great writer (a very deserving Nobel winner), and while Modiano is not following in his footsteps, following a different literary lineage, I would argue he’s not appreciably different enough to warrant a Nobel Prize while other writers languish. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or 91 year old Michel Tournier, whose best work far outstrips Modiano’s best? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? She passed away this year and it’s a shame she never won Literature’s most prestigious award.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 94 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed, especially since it felt a few years ago as if the academy was doing a tour of all the important writers that were on the brink of dying, giving the prize to deserving and old writers like Pinter, Lessing and Tranströmer. They are the kind of significant, excellent writers that we sometimes think must already have won it. In general, as I pointed out last year, the award appeared to settle into a “sure why not” pattern of boring but unobjectionable writers.

And yet, much as I liked my ‘observed’ pattern, Modiano does not fit it. If he died unrecognized there would have been no outcry about it, nor was there a general clamoring for his election, as there was for writers like Vargas Llosa. In fact, a different pattern, less acceptable, emerges now. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog. So let’s go on to my picks.

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, however, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Ko Un. I have read his work in English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss him. I find him intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss him. Selfishly, I would root for him winning just to read more essays on his work.

TWO Like poetry, nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So as in the previous case, I will mention more than one here. #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

Four So the fourth pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. So who? Let me pick 2. There’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now. But the death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. (ISBN)

Nobel Prize 2014: my picks

Since I have never correctly picked (well, Tranströmer, kind of) the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, my picks should not be given much attention. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer my suggestions. So here are five of them. With a few exceptions, I am not trying to second guess the academy. They are not unlikely to offer it to another boring candidate. It is my belief that, starting with Vargas Llosa, they started giving the prize to candidates that won’t be likely to upset the white male dominant culture of criticism. Tranströmer was the one poet whose name was touted every year, as well as perennial nobel contender Mo Yan. The pattern of the new “sure that makes sense”-prize became most obvious last year when Alice Munro won. If they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than the already excellent Munro. Before 2010, I have no doubt this would have been given to Gallant. But maybe the double whammy of Le Clèzio and Müller intimidated the academy into its present, boring, if not objectionable course.  I sincerely don’t want to think what the “sure, why not” option for 2014 could be. Philip Roth? Murakami? My heart weeps. Let’s just go on to my picks. 🙂

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. But factually, it’s probably not (was Churchill the last nonfiction winner?). So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most excellent/deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. So my list of poets is headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Additionally, his work in translating French poetry and writing on art is both accomplished, but also draws him out of what the academy perceives as American insularity. His work is personal and generous, smart and emotional, international and profoundly American. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis, whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. The third poet is Yves Bonnefoy, the most significant and important living French poet. Since I have only read his poetry (with great pleasure) and not studied it or his broader work, here is someone else’s excellent discussion of Bonnefoy. Moreover, Bonnefoy, like Ashbery, has been writing about art and produced fantastic translations (from English). So as we see, my first pick is actually three and could be longer (Jaccottet, the Swiss French genius would come to mind, maybe Zagajewsky). But I feel like there’s only room for one poet on a shortlist, for reasons that don’t apply to writers of novels who are often only perceived as “writers”.

TWO The same applies to nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So I will mention more than one here, #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE The novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gikuyu and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions.

FOUR Now. I think Thomas Pynchon, together with William H. Gass and Joyce Carol Oates, is the best and most important and accomplished living American novelist. I think his work is unbelievably well written, brilliantly conceived and incredibly influential. His thinking is generous and humane, his work being engaged against epistemological and political violence. He has tackled and succeeded in writing a multitude of different kinds of books. There are very few significant contemporary writers whose work is not marked in one way or another by Pynchon. Now, at the same time, he said he wouldn’t accept the prize and I completely understand why this would keep the academy from giving him the prize. Nobody needs a Marlon Brando moment at the ceremony. That said, my pick for #4 is not Pynchon. I advocate a joint award for Pynchon and John Barth or even Pynchon, Barth and Robert Coover. It’s been a while since we had joint Nobel Prizes in Literature but it’s not unheard-of. John Barth, even more than Pynchon, is a profound and enduring influence not just on American literature post-1960, but on world literature. Young postmodern novelist, say, Austrian firebrand Clemens J. Setz, are unthinkable without Barth’s work that continued into the 1980s. While his work since then has been of much lesser impact, the academy has shown itself willing to award writers whose best work had been behind them for quite a while. The two mid-oughts awards for Lessing and Pinter are pretty clear evidence of that fact. Giving an award to Pynchon and Barth would be an overdue recognition of the excellence and importance of American early postmodernism. Well deserved.

FIVE So the fifth pick I am least sure. There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. A writer I did read, Pierre Guyotat, is a much older writer I would not mind being recognized for his excellence and significance. But the recent death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. Maybe it’s time.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Weep not, Child

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1972), Weep not, Child, Heinemann ISBN 0-435-90007-2

Frantz Fanon once wrote that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” And in the work of acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o this relationship between the historical process and the necessary and unnecessary violence that accompanies it, is always clear, visible and foregrounded, along with issues of religion and culture. This does not mean that he is a one-dimensional writer. The breadth and power of his work is extraordinary. Ngũgĩ, who, until 1970, was called James Ngũgĩ, has produced fiction, non-fiction and drama at a steady pace, creating a singular body of work and becoming one of Africa’s best and most important writers; actually, he’s become well known and respected throughout the literary world for his many excellent novels, or his essays or his plays. To delve into his work, to look at his speeches and essays, to listen to the voices of his characters can be an invigorating experience. His most well known novels are probably A Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1977) and the recent Wizard of the Crow (2004). As the first two of these books show, Ngũgĩ is a writer who draws directly on history, his narratives are infused by and to no small extent dependent on historical and cultural contexts. Both novels deal with recent Kenyan history, with the Mau Mau rebellion and Kenya’s first year as an independent nation. The third book, a satirical fantasy, is somewhat different. There’s another difference: the third of these books has been originally published in Gĩkũyũ, a Kenyan language. James Ngũgĩ rejected his Christian name and the English language in favor of a Gĩkũyũ name and a career of writing in the Gĩkũyũ language. This is entirely consistent with his political thinking. In the late 1960s, Ngũgĩ became an adherent of Marx and Frantz Fanon, influences which did not just shape his political thinking, but also his writing, and his attitude towards language, translation and related cultural issues. This shift seems rather obvious if we look at the highly politicized fiction Ngũgĩ keeps publishing, fiction that not only led to his own imprisonment and eventual exile, but also to people like his Gĩkũyũ publisher Henry Chacava living dangerous lives. But to examine Ngũgĩ’s debut novel Weep not, Child, published in 1964, pre-Fanon, by a young university student, is to notice the continuities in his work. Although it was not the first novel he had written, it was in fact the first to be published and despite its many flaws, it’s an impressive work of art. What’s more, it demonstrates political and social concerns that have become constant themes of Ngũgĩ’s work since. It would be facile to identify the politics in his books from 1967 onwards with the influence of Marxism and Fanonism. He would be a less impressive, less powerful, less great writer if his political and social insights could be reduced to the influence of two very specific ideologies. Any close reading of Weep not, Child will conclude that Ngũgĩ’s critical instincts are merely very close to the positions held by Marxism, and while Marxism did help to focus and develop his instincts and his thinking, the seeds of it were already there, in his observations of the post-colonial landscape in Kenya. Ngũgĩ is not primarily a political thinker and his power and importance is not in the strength or insight of that thinking, but it is part and parcel of his literary craft, and for a writer to dip so deeply into history, a certain level of political and historical insight is necessary in order to pull it off. Ngũgĩ’s work manages to work with raw historical materials without sacrificing literary complexity, marrying both a sense of urgency and an aesthetic appreciation for the art of the novel. And his essays, in collections like Writers in Politics and Homecoming, for example, are worth reading for the same reason. His earlier essays suffer a bit from a back stiffened by jargon, but in everything I read of his, his urgent, beautiful voice shines through.

And reading several of his novels chronologically, one notices that Ngũgĩ is a serious, careful writer: in his work there appears to be a hunger for accuracy, and a willingness to switch through different perspectives, different periods to get it just right, see things, and the process of history in just the right light. And yet, in so many ways, he did get it right, right off the bat, in his first published novel. Weep not, Child is a thin book, a mere 154 pages, and yet, between the first and the last page, a whole world has fallen apart. Like many African novels, including recent ones like Ondjaki’s Bom Dia Camaradas (2001), Ngũgĩ makes use of the perspective of a high school student who witnesses his country’s disintegration, sees how order around him, i.e. school and family order, collapse, give way to violence, fear and outrage. The novel’s protagonist, Njoroge, is a bright and talented student. The novel begins with his entering school, and throughout his academic career he will be at the top of his class, excelling because he’s driven by a thirst for knowledge and by an obligation to succeed. Because, for him, education is a rare privilege. It’s expensive, and not necessarily usual for a boy his age with his background to attend several schools and to learn English, and history and other things. It is no accident that Ngũgĩ’s novel begins with Njoroge’s “unspoken wish, his undivulged dream” to have an education, to attend school. For Kenyans and other African writers of Ngũgĩ’s time, Western-style education was important, as was Christian culture. And Njoroge is in no position to resist that appeal, that, as Nigerian critic Obi Walli wrote, “uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium of educated African writing.” Major writers such as Soyinka and Achebe continued to write in English, who was a small village boy to think otherwise? In fact, Ngũgĩ himself had not switched over to Gĩkũyũ yet, and he had not yet developed a strong resistance to Christian doctrine. In 1964, when he composed his debut novel, Ngũgĩ still played by the rules. Seen in this light, it’s all the more remarkable that the novel itself already displays a deep suspicion towards the merits of Western education in a shifting political landscape, of going to school in a time when one’s country is exploited by white settlers, when you are governed by a political structure that can at best be called ‘feudal’. Njoroge loves school, and he quickly cottons to religion, but at the same time the world around him keeps reminding him of the limits of the world that learning and faith constructs. In a series of harsh little vignettes, Njoroge is shown the cruelty and brutality of political change. At the same time, the book doesn’t really pontificate, it is not a straightforward political screed, instead seems bent inward, crooked with though, exploring the paradoxes that Njoroge is entangled in, the conflicts arising from his place in his society and his individuality and quest for personal knowledge and growth. In a way, it seems a product of ongoing thought, not of finished speech. The book is not as surefooted as his later works, not half as cocky and adventuresome as his later non-fiction. This is not yet the writer who would, in 1970, stand in front of the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and declare: “I am not even a Christian”, and assert that “in Kenya, [Christianity] was built on the inequality and hatred between men and the consequent subjugation of the black race by the white race.” Instead, the Ngũgĩ of Weep not, Child decides to weigh the issues, letting them simmer while the country around his protagonist burns in the fire of the Mau Mau rebellion. For Njoroge, the rebellion is doubly important: additionally to whatever effect this may have on the country as a whole, members of his family are personally involved in the whole business. His father, a proud farmer, believes in prophecies and in the fact that the Kenyan land will eventually be returned to its rightful owners, the Kenyan people. Except for one massive angry outburst, he is a Gandhi-like figure, resisting passively, suffering enormous pain for his cause without inflicting like pain on his opponents.

Njoroge’s brothers, though, trained as they are by the British army (having fought in both World Wars for them), are experienced killers, and quick to temper. Angered by the racist policies and treatment accorded to black Kenyan’s, they end up, quickly enough, in the front line of the rebellion, shooting officials, being captured, escaping. They have little patience either for their father’s mule-headed passivity, nor for their brother’s interest in knowledge, faith and English. It is not by accident that I have mentioned male characters exclusively, so far. The feudal reign of the British, and the raw violence unleashed on both sides finds an odd equivalent in the patriarchal structure of Kenyan society. This is a society that doesn’t just know and accept polygamy, but one that also practices female genital mutilation. Frankly, I was shocked by the offhand, careless way that Ngũgĩ seems to treat this horrifying practice (and the lack of moral stance towards it in books that put a stronger emphasis on it, like his second published novel The River Between which looks at the conflict between tribal tradition and modern mores) but this lack of attention is highly important for the novel, it makes it, oddly, better, because it’s part of its queer ambiguities, and of the issues that the book explores and critiques. Njoroge, his father and his brothers are all representative of various kinds of masculine ways to act. Some are seen as virtuous and praiseworthy, others are ultimately regarded as so despicable, so craven and cowardly, that Njoroge, the man acting that way, will end up trying to hang himself. The last paragraph of the novel effectively denies him his masculinity, confirms his weakness. Ngũgĩ is clearly interested in this aspect of gender. Like other excellent poets of revolutionary history such as Heiner Müller, Ngũgĩ seems unable to discuss historical turbulence without connecting it to gender issues, unable to discuss public structures without connecting them to private ones. In this light, the offhand use of female genital mutilation, of gender stereotypes and of polygamist family structures perfectly fits the violent, feudal society they take place in. As does the language. Of all the elements of the book, Ngũgĩ’s language was probably what was most vexing and strange for me as a reader. The language is extremely simple, yet not colloquial. At times it reads like a high school essay, with its short sentences, the limping rhythm of the prose and the stilted, unnatural dialogue. It seems like a quick, interlinear translation, done without a thought for how the finished product might sound in the target language. For that reason alone, the first dozen pages can be a chore to read, but as we read on, the book suddenly hits its stride. Not because the style is so much better later, but because the odd style starts to coalesce, it starts to make sense. The book is largely written in free indirect speech, yet it’s not focused on Njoroge alone, and still the voice doesn’t change much. The reason for this is that Ngũgĩ has, in a way, created an omniscient-seeming narrator who is actually rather limited, a simple man, sharing perhaps Njoroge’s kind of education and sophistication. This way, Ngũgĩ manages to write about poor and simple people without any condescension, and create a narrative framework and a narrative logic that is not that of an outsider and we as readers are allowed to partake of that logic. The narrator and the protagonist are both a bit distanced from the main action of the book, onlookers, thus allowing us to see and feel, but not forcing us to do so. Ngũgĩ has created a ponderous, ambiguous little book, one where the author leaves various plot elements and bits of landscape and furniture comment on one another without creating a necessity for explicit or brash authorial comments. As readers, what we are left with is a terribly entangled situation, one where removing one elements comes at the cost of destabilizing another, where everything is connected and any call for change would have to take into account the whole situation. As Jomo Kenyatta, anthropologist and first President of Kenya, wrote in his very readable book Facing Mount Kenya (1938): “For the present, it is impossible for a member of the [Gĩkũyũ] tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” (a position also held by people like Leonard Woolf). Neither Kenyatta nor Ngũgĩ are, of course, defenders of the practice, but issues like these demonstrate the intractable nature of many cultural conflicts arising in the wake of decolonization. Given these tensions the ensuing violence is hardly surprising, and writing about that kind of violence is difficult and has led to the creation of more bad than good books. Weep not, Child, its title echoing both Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane, is not merely a good book. It is also the first novel of a prodigious career. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has turned into one of the best living novelists, and one of our most urgent and committed political thinkers. Because the seeds of his work are all already on board, and because it is a fine novel in its own right, Weep not, Child is a book well worth reading.

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