And Now a Literary Prize Has to Be Courageous, Too?

Boualem Sansal started writing novels at 50 after retiring from a government job.

To be fair, the German Peace Prize is not a literary award. It’s given yearly at the Frankfurt Book Fair and often goes to authors: This year, it was Francophone Algerian author Boualem Sansal; last year, Israeli author David Grossman; before that Orhan Pamuk, Chinua Achebe, and Assia Djebar all took home the award.

According to the “Peace Prize of the German Book Trade” website:

“The foundation is committed to peace, humanity and understanding among all peoples and nations of the world. The Peace Prize promotes international tolerance by acknowledging individuals who have contributed to these ideals through their exceptional activities, especially in the fields of literature, science and art.”

And from the jury’s statement:

Boualem Sansal is one of the few remaining intellectuals in Algeria who continue to voice criticism of political and social conditions in that country. With his unrelenting plea for the kind of free speech and public dialogue that are hall-marks of a democratic society, he labors against all forms of doctrinarian blindness, terror and political arbitrariness. His critical view is, however, directed not only at his homeland, but also at the entire contemporary world.

According to Stefan Weidner, writing in Qantara, this choice (of an Arab! during the “Arab spring!”) has received wide praise in Germany, where Sansal’s most recent book The German Mujahid also received praise. I haven’t read the book, as I was turned off by M.A. Orthofer’s review, which noted that the book forces Sansal’s message of Islamism = Nazism.

Weidner asserts that the choice is “cowardly,” because Sansal is not critical of any of the sacred German cows and further that Sansal is only “half Arab” because he does’t write in Arabic. (We’ll just ignore that second, odd bit of criticism.)

What does it mean for an author to win a “peace” prize? Would Sonallah Ibrahim be up for the prize because his wide-ranging vision undermines injustice? Weidner mentions Elias Khoury, but goes on to say that Khoury, like Sahar Khalifeh, is out because criticism of Israel is taboo.

In any case, what does Khoury have to do with “peace”? Really, while “peace, humanity, and understanding among all peoples” sound really nice and We-Are-The-Worldish, they provide a sufficiently empty vessel, and thus can mean just about anyone who seems to support “our values.”

The courage to dig up really fine literature. That’s what I’d like to see.

I’d worry about it less if this weren’t true:

Want to Sell Your Books? Winning a Literary Prize Sure Can Help