This is the week for the Nobel Prizes. The 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature has been rightfully and aptly awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian novelist. His native language is Swahili but he writes in English and lives in England. The Nobel citation for Abdulrazak Gurnah reads: “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
(Taken from here )
It is not always that the Nobel Prize for Literature gets awarded to someone who is worthy enough or if s/he is, then, there’s always someone worthier who has been overlooked. For a Prize like the Nobel, with its high stakes reputation and the issue of choosing one laureate, these niggling issues would remain.
Jamia Millia Islamia, the University, where I work, my Department, English, had organized an Interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah six months earlier. This was under a SPARC Project supported by the MHRD (now, Ministry of Education), Govt of India. Professor Nishat Zaidi, my colleague, the Project Investigator, had conducted the interview. Prof Dilip Menon at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, is the foreign co-PI. You can watch Dilip Menon and Nishat Zaidi in conversation with Abdulrazak Gurnah on YouTube here.
So, at least, we could have “bragging rights” that we had invited Abdulrazak Gurnah six months before he was conferred the Nobel. I have been aware of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work but let us not talk about him today. Let us not be cheerleaders for anyone, no, not even the revered Nobel. They do their work, we do ours. And the much-respected Nobel Prize going to Abdulrazak Gurnah means the celebrated Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o might just have to wait longer. Gurnah has also been contributing editor to the storied Wasafiri Magazine where I have found myself published a few times.
As Gurnah talks of colonialism as also of indigenous cultures, I would like to talk about another Nobel Laureate for Literature today. He spoke about indigenous people and told their story in a way no other possibly could. I’m talking about none other than the incomparable Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan novelist, and diplomat. Asturias won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967. In early 1990s as I was studying for my Masters, most of us knew about Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I had read him. But I discovered Asturias around the same time. However, most of my peers didn’t. It needs to be said to Indian audiences, at least, that Marquez succeeded Asturias as a Nobel Laureate fifteen years later. And also that Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) was one of the first Latin American Boom novelists.
Between 1923 and 1933, during his stay in Paris, Asturias wrote his novel, The President. To simply call it a ‘political novel’ would be a heresy. It is one of the most powerful political novels that I have ever read in world literature. During his life, Asturias had the unique distinction of witnessing life under two dictators, Estrada Cabrera, and later, Jorge Ubico.
The President deals with Guatemala under the dictator, Estrada Cabrera but nowhere in the novel, is the country or the leader mentioned. The novel was so sensitive that it could be published more than a decade later. It talks about an unnamed dictator and traces the life of people under the ‘President’s rule’. It is a chilling novel in many ways.
A frozen silence followed these words; then there was a moan and after a pause another moan and finally a “yes”. When the rope was unfastened the Widower fell to the floor unconscious. (pg. 14)
When they went on to interrogate his companions, who were trembling like dogs poisoned by the police and dying in the street, they all confirmed what the Judge Advocate General had said-all except the Mosquito. His face was contorted by a rictus of fear and disgust. (pg 14)
“Come in, General.”
“With your permission, Mr President.”
“Are they ready, General?”
“Yes, Mr President.”
“Go yourself, General; offer my condolences to his widow and present her with these three hundred pesos in the name of the President of the Republic, to help her with the funeral expenses.” (pg 37)
From El Senor Presidente (The President) by Miguel Angel Asturias, translated from Spanish by Frances Partridge, Atheneum, New York, 1967.
The first time, I read The President around 1994, I remember being scared to my bones. There is no satire in this novel that pervades George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.
You might also like to read this article on The President published by Shikoh Mohsin Mirza last year.
I really like reading The Nobel Lecture that Asturias delivered. It is titled, “The Latin American Novel: Testimony of an Epoch”. I read it around once a year. There are so many nuggets in it about the representation of the native people in the novels and how the spirit of the land finds it echo in the literature of its time. His observations about the struggle of the people are very important. So also, his comments about the poetry and fiction of Latin America existing as ‘literature of witness’, literature that bears witness to the multitudinous epochs of the time.
Do read this amazing lecture here.
When Abdulrazak Gurnah talks of colonialism, a process that also starts with commercial exploitation of the native people by foreign capital, I am certainly reminded of Miguel Angel Asturias. Asturias’s novel, Men of Maize remains a legendary novel in different ways. The English translation of Men of Maize is also part of historical collection of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage Sector. The title of the novel originates in one of the most sacred books of the Mayan people, the Popol Vuh.
Estrada Cabrera, the dictator, had given a lot of concessions to United Fruit Company, which were considered excessive by the people. He had also used coercive, oppressive measures to implement his rule as a dictator.
The plot of Men of Maize revolves around an isolated Guatemalan community of people, the ‘men of maize’, the local people for whom ‘corn’ or ‘maize’ is held sacred, whereas for the outsiders, it is only a commercial crop, which must be duly exploited. It is an amazing novel in many ways, in its loose plot structure, in its retelling of the Mayan myths as also its sheer poetic tour de force. The story of the utter destruction wrought upon by multinational capital is also narrated by Joseph Conrad in his novel, Nostromo, which also deals with a Latin American country.
That is what Gaspar thought. That is what he said, his head separated from his body, babbling, burning, wrapped in a bundle hoary with moonlight. Gaspar grew older as he talked. (pg 4)
The earth will become exhausted and the planter will take his little seeds off somewhere else, until he too begins to waste away like a discolored seed fallen in the midst of fertile lands ripe for planting, lands that could make him a rich man instead of a nobody who wanders around ruining the earth everywhere he goes, always poor and finally losing all pleasure in the good things he could have had. (pg 6)From Men of Maize by Miguel Angel Asturias, translated from Spanish by Gerald Martin, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1975.
You might like to listen to this audio discussion on ABC Radio, Australia, with academic, Rene Prieto on Men of Maize.
The story of our times that we live may not so much be the story of The President as it may also be the story of Men of Maize that unfolds across indigenous communities where we live. If Miguel Angel Asturias can prove to be so prescient, there is a lot of meaning in going back to the classics of world literature to better understand the current human condition. The stories of both unbridled political power as also strongarm tactics to push corporates into indigenous communities are stories of our times. These are stories that also affect us.