Thursday, October 02, 2003

Guardian Unlimited Books | News | Coetzee wins Nobel

I see that the awards committee decided to play it safe this year. This has got to be one of the least surprising and most belated decisions ever to be made for the literature award.

South African writer JM Coetzee has won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature.

The 63-year-old writer, long a favoured contender, was given the prestigious award for his ability to write stories that "in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider."

In its citation, the academy said Coetzee's novels are characterised by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance. "But at the same time, he is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation."

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the academy, said the decision was an easy one.

"We were very much convinced of the lasting value of his contribution to literature. I'm not speaking of the number of books, but the variety, and the very high average quality," he said. "I think he is a writer. . . that will continue to be discussed and analysed and we think he should belong to our literary heritage."


It is the second time since 1991 that the academy has given the award to a South African. In 1991, they awarded the prize to Nadine Gordimer.

The academy has been Eurocentric in its recent decisions, giving the award to Europeans the last eight years. Since 1980, only three winners have come from Africa, three from South America, two from the United States and one from Asia. It's been 14 years since someone from the Middle East was given the nod, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz.

Coetzee is renowned for shunning publicity, and never bothered to collect the two Booker prizes he won in 1983 and 1999 (for Disgrace). (emphasis added)

I have to say that I found the highlighted paragraph above annoying. Why the whole "Eurocentric" bit? Are we supposed to extend this sort of ethnic bean-counting to the Nobel Prize as well? There is something deeply wrong with a worldview in which the first thing that springs to mind on an occasion like this is to start tallying recent award winners by region of origin. If the best writers consistently come from a given region, they ought to be awarded the prize consistently. One shouldn't be extending the sort of thinking behind affirmative action, which was supposed to rectify a specific historical injustice, into areas in which it has no business figuring.