The accidental Nobels

The Nobel Prizes for Peace and Literature have become a joke for so long that when a worthy winner is named, it seems accidental. Among the winners of the Nobel Prize for Peace, for example, are miscreants including Le Duc Tho (1973), Rigoberta Menchu Tum (1992), Yasser Arafat (1994), Jimmy Carter (2002), Al Gore (2007) and Barack Obama (2009). Among the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature in recent years are Dario Fo (1997), Elfriede Jelinek (2004), Harold Pinter (2006), and Doris Lessing (2007). Looking at these winners raises one important question: How is it that Menchu never won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Worthy recipients of the award for peace or literature seem to be the exception. When worthy recipients are named in one year to receive the prizes for both peace and literature, it must be a case of harmonic convergence. Such is the case this year.
This year the Nobel Prize for Peace went to imprisoned Chinese democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo. Claudia Rosett celebrates the choice here. Rosett calls him “a man who has struggled and sacrificed for decades in the cause of bringing to the 1.3 billion people of China the freedoms and rights denied to them by the ruling Communist Party.” For his efforts he is serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.” The award has caused heartburn among the powers-that-be within the Communist government of China. According to the linked AFP report, police detained dozens of Liu’s supporters as they gathered to toast his award on Friday night.
This year the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa is a great man of letters who is also a friend of liberty. Running on a platform of freedom and free enterprise, he was unfortunately crushed in the election for the presidency of Peru by Alberto Fujimori in 1990. He opposes Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Forbes quotes Vargas Llosa: “I’m going to keep defending the ideas I have, the defense of democracy, the defense of freedom … criticisms of all forms of authoritarianism.”
The Nobel committee never got around to recognizing John Updike over a long career during which he may well have been the most accomplished man of letters in the world. Vargas Llosa may now be that man, and his work has been well translated into English. Among his noteworthy novels are Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, The Feast of the Goat, and The War of the End of the World. For what it is worth, in A Writer’s Reality back in 1991 Vargas Llosa named the last of these the novel he would choose as his favorite. His 1993 memoir A Fish in the Water recounts his life in literature and politics.
As might be expected, the Los Angeles Times reports that Latin American literati are no more amused by Vargas Llosa’s award for literature than the Chinese Communists are by Xiaobo’s. “What a horror!” the novelist Luisa Valenzuela told the Mexican daily La Jornada at the Frankfurt book fair in Germany upon hearing the news. “With the political swerve that Mario took, I would have preferred Carlos Fuentes.”
Fuentes backed the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and was an early supporter of Castro. His sympathy for Castro reportedly waned in 1965, however, when the Cuban authorities branded him and Pablo Neruda traitors for attending a PEN International ceremony in New York. Maybe next year!

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