Nobel Prize Announcement Thursday: Arabs in the Betting

The winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature will be revealed this Thursday. There’s no way of knowing who is on the Swedish Academy’s shortlist — at least not until the archives are opened up fifty years from now — but we do know who’s on the betting rolls:

nobelAt the top of the list is Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which would be a wonderful shift away from European writing to an author who has written significant creative work and also done it in Gikuyu. But he’s also been the bookies’ favorite before.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the Arabic literary sphere: Elias Khoury was not included in this year’s betting rolls at all. Indeed, after several years with a marked interest in Arab authors (in the last several years Elias Khoury, Ghassan Zaqtan, Hanan al-Shaykh, Nawal al-Saadawi, and Leila Aboulela have all made the betting rolls, in addition to perennial list-ees Adonis and Assia Djebar), it seems to be waning.

This year, when the betting lists first appeared, the only Arabs were the two always-a-bridesmaid candidates: Syrian-French poet Adonis and Algerian-French novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar. As in the last few years, Nobel observer M.A. Orthofer noted, “I’m not sure about Adonis this year — again, the politics might be too messy for them to want to get involved.”  There isn’t much question about Adonis’s poetic significance in Arabic and in translation (apparently he’s been particularly embraced in Mandarin Chinese translation), but the politics are nothing if not messy.

Orthofer didn’t mention Djebar in his pre-prize commentary. But Le Figaro has previously commented that she probably won’t get the prize for several reasons: 1) she’s not “sufficiently universal,” which is questionable 2) she doesn’t write in her “mother tongue,” 3) she is a writer “for the French” who hasn’t been sufficiently translated into Arabic or Tamazight, and 4) her candidacy hasn’t been supported enough by the Algerians.

A later addition to the betting is octogenarian Egyptian novelist and memoirist Nawal al-Saadawi — who has now jumped to 20:1 on the Ladbrokes rolls and 15:1 at Unibet — but who is perhaps more noted as an activist than as an author, and for that reason has been nominated for Nobel’s Peace Prize. The likelihood of her winning the prize seems slim. Although some of her nonfiction is quite powerful emotionally, it’s not ground-breaking as literature.

The experimental Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, who the New York Times has called the “anti-Orientalist,” was also a later addition to the lists, and can also be claimed by North Africa, as he has spent much of his life in Morocco. Perhaps, at 33:1, he’s our most likely candidate.

Certainly, the writer doesn’t have to be listed at Ladbrokes, Paddy Power, or Unibet to get the prize. M.A. Orthofer is pulling for a candidate off the lists, and mentions Ibrahim al-Koni among them. But the likelihood of an Arab or Arabic Nobel seems very slim. Perhaps, as this As-Safir commenter suggests, 2054 will be the year.