Ladbrokes Says Syrian Poet Adonis Is Smart Bet for Nobel Prize

Philip Roth
Author Philip Roth. Ladbrokes gives him 16-1 odds to win the Nobel Prize this year. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Never mind Philip Roth. This could finally be the year Syrian poet Adonis snags the Nobel Prize for Literature.

That’s the word from bet-loving Britain, where bookmaker Ladbrokes has transformed the uppity award, which will be announced on Oct. 6, into the cultural equivalent of the Grand National.

It currently has France-based Adonis leading the pack at 4-1. He happens to write in Arabic, a language markedly underrepresented among Nobelists.

He’s followed at 6-1 by Sweden’s Tomas Transtromer, another octogenarian poet whose name is rarely heard by English-language readers except in this context.

In third place is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami at 8-1. Lest he seem too familiar a name for a prize that in the past decade has gone to the likes of Elfriede Jelinek and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, you might consider a flutter on India’s K. Satchidanandan at 33-1 or China’s Bei Dao at 40-1.

So far, Les Murray and Thomas Pynchon are the strongest English-language contenders at 16-1 and 18-1, while Cormac McCarthy, John Banville, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo and Roth are all at 25-1, along with Bob Dylan. Julian Barnes -- Ladbrokes’ 13-8 favorite for this year’s Man Booker Prize -- languishes at 100-1.

“The unpredictability is what makes it so appealing as a betting medium -- you can back a 50-1 and have a real chance of winning,” the bookie’s public relations officer Alex Donohue said, speaking by telephone from London. Indeed, odds on last year’s winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, closed at 40-1.

Bets From Afar

That appeal extends internationally, too. Ladbrokes accepts bets from as far afield as Africa, Hong Kong and South America, and since it started offering odds in 2002, annual takings from the prize have increased 400 percent to a sizeable five-figure sum, according to Donohue.

Even for those who don’t bet, the Ladbrokes list has become a guide to a notoriously wide field, at the same time hinting at how the prize is perceived. Its curator is a Swede named Magnus Puke, whose job title at Ladbrokes is Nordic Sports and Novelty Odds Compiler, and who writes love poetry in his spare time.

Compiling odds for an artistic prize is quite different from compiling odds for a sporting competition. The metrics that are available often seem to count against an author where the Swedish Academy is concerned. As Puke said of Murakami in a telephone interview, “A lot of people would say he’s too common.”

Watching Twitter

Puke compiles his list by working literary contacts, hanging out in online forums and keeping an eye on Twitter. This year, he said, the Swedish whispers have been about poetry, which last got acknowledged as a winner’s primary metier in 1996 with Wislawa Szymborska.

The 2011 list is 77 authors long so far. In its earliest years, it contained about 25 names. Its growth is due in part to the public’s interest. Ladbrokes will always add writers if someone wants to place bets on them, and sometimes they will be retained the following year, as in the case of Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, currently at 33-1.

Not that Puke believes he has much of a chance. “The vibe is that this is not Africa’s year,” he said, adding the same caveat he applies to every Nobel-related statement: “But you never know.”

Once betting gets under way, the money can provide its own clues, sometimes hinting at the identity of the five finalists the Swedish Academy selects without ever naming publicly. Occasional leaks are inevitable, though rare, Puke said.

Nuruddin Farah

Does this explain how Herta Muller became the winner with the lowest closing odds (3-1), despite being among the least known in the English-language world? And if so, should we be making anything of the fact that odds on the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah have more than halved already to 20-1?

There’s also the fact that the winner of the Franz Kafka Prize has twice gone on to win the Nobel the same year, Puke pointed out. The latest Kafka recipient is Irish novelist Banville; will it be his name that is announced in Stockholm? It seems even less likely than those 25-1 odds suggest.

Puke himself is not allowed to bet, though if he had to pick a winner, his money would be on Adonis. “I really think this is poetry’s year, and without a doubt, the politically correct choice would be Adonis. I think he’s a strong favorite in a very unpredictable market.”

Then again, you never know.

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