Bookies Tout Murakami as Nobels Flirt With Literary Irrelevance

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami. Ladbrokes gives him 2-1 odds to win the Nobel Prize this year. Photographer: Elana Seibert/Knopf via Bloomberg

With the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded on Thursday, Philip Roth may be feeling down in the dumps at the prospect of yet another Swedish snub.

Here’s some trivia to cheer him up. When Johannes V. Jensen snagged the 1944 award, it was a case of 18th time lucky. The septuagenarian father of Danish modernism had been nominated almost every year since 1925.

If Stockholm chooses to spurn the great American novelist once again come Thursday, there’s additional solace to be had from the fact that virtually no one outside Denmark has heard of Jensen today.

The Swedish Academy rivals the Vatican for secrecy, keeping official nominations under lock and key until half a century has elapsed. This leaves prize-watchers studying lists drawn up by bookies like Ladbrokes, which places Roth at 16/1 as of this writing -- up from last year’s odds of 25/1 though still lagging some way behind the early favorite, Haruki Murakami at 2/1.

If this isn’t going to be Roth’s year, the jazz-loving Japanese author of “Norwegian Wood” and “IQ84” would make a laudable pick. At once intriguingly local and resonantly global, Murakami’s fiction nets truths about modern life within narratives that, for all their surreal drollery, can seem descended directly from Dickens.

China’s Mo Yan is joint second favorite alongside Hungary’s Peter Nadas, whose most recent novel took 18 years to write, and Canada’s Alice Munro, who has resisted pressure to publish anything longer than short stories. So far, there has been only one Chinese-born literature laureate: Gao Xingjian, who took French citizenship several years before winning in 2000.

‘Don’t Speak’

Yan’s fiction is largely historical, as epitomized by his novel “Big Breasts and Wide Hips.” Blending realism with folkloric motifs, it is seen by some as guardedly critical of the Chinese state, though the man himself has also been criticized for failing to support dissidents. Mo Yan is in fact a pen name and translates as “don’t speak.”

The odds on last year’s top tip, Syrian poet Adonis, are languishing at 14/1 this time around. That places him above his regional competition, Israel’s Amos Oz, the fine novelist and still finer non-fiction writer, yet below Bob Dylan, who finds himself sharing third place with William Trevor.

Having opened at 100/1, odds on the 84-year-old Irishman have now been slashed to 10/1. Eight of the past 10 prizes have stayed in Europe and it would be a pity if Trevor’s nationality were to count against him. He is, after all, one of the most accomplished living writers in any language.

African Writers

It’s been almost a decade since J.M. Coetzee won. Should the Nobel committee decide it’s time to look to Africa again, the bets are that it will go to Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiog’o or perhaps Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. Algerian novelist Assia Djebar has also become a fixture on the bookies’ lists.

Among the less well-known names being touted this year is Italy’s Dacia Maraini. The daughter of a mountaineer and a Sicilian princess, she spent part of her childhood in a concentration camp in World War II Japan. Her feminist-inflected novels such as “The Silent Duchess” are exquisitely observed. She definitely deserves a wider readership -- but does she deserve to win?

Toronto’s Margaret Atwood certainly does. While the last U.S. recipient was Toni Morrison in 1993, the last Canadian was Saul Bellow in 1976, and his family had left Quebec for Chicago when he was still a boy.

Munro, Atwood

According to the bookies, Atwood’s compatriot Munro stands a better chance of winning. While Munro can be ranked alongside the greatest short story writers of all time, Atwood electrifies the written word through fearless and sustained engagement with the world that may lie just ahead, as well as that which surrounds us.

A prize is ultimately only as prestigious as its winners. In the past decade, the Nobel has added Elfriede Jelinek, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio and Herta Muller to its hall of fame. Though Coetzee, Doris Lessing and Mario Vargas Llosa have joined them, it’s hard not to weigh this list against the names of those who continue to be overlooked -- Murakami, Trevor, Atwood.

And Roth, of course. There is a compelling case to be made for this award rendering itself meaningless if it continues to ignore him. Apparently, it’s one competition that could actually benefit from a referee lockout.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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