Update: Vargas Llosa wins! Learn more.
Now that The Nobel Prize Committee has already selected their winner for the Literature prize, there’s only a little time left before the announcement to bet on the winner at Ladbrokes. Of the 237 nominees selected, Ladbrokes bookies chose a few dozen authors they felt are particularly likely to win. Among them are some six Hispanophone writers, with the favorite of the bunch running at 25/1 odds. Still, everyone loves an upset, and with that in mind, we’ve handicapped the group ahead of the big day.
Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been given 25/1 odds by the bookies. Vargas Llosa, 74, is an all around man of letters, in the long Latin American tradition of such figures. He’s a journalist, playwright, columnist, critic, politician (he ran for president of Peru in 1990), but most of all he’s a novelist, and among his greatest hits is The War at the End of the World, novel that made Harold Bloom’s best of all time list. A good starting point however might be The Time of the Hero, a coming-of-age story that takes place in a military academy. Of his non-fiction I am fond of Letters to a Young Novelist, a lyrical meditation on Flaubert, Cervantes, Borges, and other authors Vargas Llosa admires. It’s an admirable book of essays in its own right.
Things in favor: old age, politically active
Things against: politically conservative, name recognition
Mexican Carlos Fuentes (30/1, then 33/1), in addition to being the screenwriter (of awful films), the former ambassador to France and an essayist, has penned some dozen novels. His fame for erudition in Mexico has reached near Harold Bloom levels. Fuentes, 82, spent much of his life in the United States as a boy and wrote The Death of Artemio Cruz when he was 34. Among other things novels often allude to U.S-Mexico relations. Of his books, I greatly enjoy The Old Gringo, a historical novel based on satirist Ambrose Bierce’s sojourn in Mexico. Fuentes remarkably takes the old stereotype of fatalistic Mexicans – seen in works by Graham Greene and D.H. Lawrence – and turns it on its head.
Things in favor: old age
Things against: name recognition, politically centrist
This year, 79-year old Spanish novelist and poet Juan Goytisolo (30/1 then knocked to 66/1) – listed with the wrong first name on Ladbrokes (Luis Goytisolo is his brother in fact and I highly doubt he’s up for a Nobel; he hasn’t even been translated in English) – made the list. Obtuse, postmodern, and confessional are a few words that describe Goytisolo’s work. The Dalkey Archive recently reprinted Juan the Landless. A narrative tirade told with a brutal sense of humor, the book is the final part of a trilogy that announces Goytisolo’s own self-imposed exile in Morocco.
Things in favor: obscure, expatriate, homosexual, old age
Things against: none
Ernesto Cardenal – not Cardinal, as Ladbrokes spells it – a Nicaraguan poet and former Sandanista was given 30/1 chance of winning the prize until Ladbrokes knocked him down to 45/1. After a correspondence with religious poet Thomas Merton, Cardenal decided to study at Merton’s convent in Kentucky in the 1950s. Then a visit to Cuba in 1970 lead him to embrace liberation theology – a mix of Marxism and Catholicism extremely popular all over Latin America at the time – which in effect converted him into a Sandanista. After the Sandista victory in 1979 he was the Minister of Culture until he resigned in 1987, and this year he publicly denounced Daniel Ortega, former Sandinista, and now president of Nicaragua. Cardenal is also a longtime friend of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and New Directions released an anthology of his poems last year, Pluriverse. My favorite poem from the collection, “At the Grave of a Guerilla” imagines an astronaut looking down on a guerrilla’s tomb from space.
Things in favor: leftist, politically active, old age, literary merit, neglected country, poet
Javier Marias, the youngest of the group at 59, is, after Vargas Llosa, is probably the most well known in the Anglophone world, not to mention a best-seller in his native Spain (I once bought one of his novels from a vending machine). Son of the expat philosopher Julian Marias, a prodigious English translator, he was recently accepted into the Real Academia Española. Of his novels, I like Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me, the story of a love affair and an untimely death, delivered in what almost sounds like a soliloquy, laced with Shakespearean references.
Things in favor: politically outspoken
Things against: name recognition, young
Rounding out the group, we have writer Eduardo Galeano (66/1). Author of Open Veins of Latin America, his first work that he wrote when he was a journalist in the 1960s. This is also the book that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez handed to President Obama upon meeting him. All of his works since then are collections of short, aphoristic non-fiction fables. Galeano has cranked out quite a few beautiful quotes, some of which can be found in Voices of Time: A Life in Stories, an excellent place to start with the Uruguayan writer.
Things in favor: leftist, politically outspoken
Things against: none
Who would I like to see win:
Ernesto Cardenal – He’s been reprimanded by Pope John Paul II and had has his bank account frozen by Daniel Ortega; someone has got to cut this guy some slack, and who better than the Swedes?
Who might win:
Juan Goytisolo – His standing almost reminds me of recent winners, with an obvious political element in his work, recognized for his work, but in the bigger picture not well-known. Of course, that is if Ladbrokes doesn’t really mean Luis Goytisolo – who doesn’t stand a chance.
Wild card pick:
Although he didn’t appear on the Ladbrokes card Nicanor Parra, 94, has been projected to win so many times he’s written a poem about it, or anti-poem, as he calls it.
With all of Ladbrokes’ typos, errors, and last minute changes, I wonder who is really betting on this. I’ve got my copy of Petals of Blood handy just in case the favorite Ngugu Wa Thiong’o (7/2) wins.
Max’s recent post cataloging 13 years of Anglo-American “Prizewinners” got me wondering… what were the most decorated books in foreign-language fiction during the same period? And how many of them are currently available in English? I assumed that, in an Internet age, this information would be easy to come by in consolidated form; as it turned out, I was wrong. And so, by way of a remedy, I embarked on a tortuous research process.The first step was to figure out what prizes I should be looking at. I tried to identify awards that recognized a single work of fiction annually, or biennially; that focused on a specific linguistic tradition; and that would give a book traction in a market sizable enough to facilitate comparison. That is, I was looking for analogues for the National Book Award or the Booker. The list of prizes I ended up with covers a slightly expanded version of the U.N. Security Council – France and its former colonies, the Spanish-speaking world, Germany and Austria, Italy, Russia, and Japan – which may, in itself, tell us something about the nature of literary laurels.Next, to allow for the time required to translate a book, I narrowed my window to the years 1995-2005, assuming that more recent books may still be in the process of translation. Using Wikipedia, World Literature Today the Library of Congress Catalog, Amazon.com, Babelfish, and other resources, I was able to track down English-language versions of prize-winning titles from those years (though not to rule out the existence of translations the LoC and Amazon might have missed).With its many arbitrary elements, its patent Eurocentrism, and its shaky grasp of some of the languages and cultures involved (readers are encouraged to enlighten me via the comments button), my ad hoc methodology makes the one publisher John O’Brien critiques in the current issue of CONTEXT look positively rigorous. Nonetheless, in light of O’Brien’s argument that “translations have suddenly moved from their marginalized place in the American marketplace,” the resulting list turns out to be pretty interesting. And, no matter how one interprets the data, this “International Edition” of our Prizewinners feature should offer readers who share my passion for contemporary world literature a place to start.(N.B.: Jealous of Max’s arithmetic prowess, I’ve injected some pseudoscience into this post by calculating the Translation Quotient (TQ): percentage of winners of each award that have been translated into English. The prizes are listed in descending order of TQ.)1. French-Language LiteratureIn the Prix Goncourt, France has one of the world’s most venerable and distinguished literary awards. Every December since 1903, it has been given to “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.” My favorites among the honorees include Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove and Patrick Chaimoiseau’s Texaco. Perhaps because of the prize’s august history, and perhaps because of the intensity with which the French promote their literary culture, the Goncourt has the best Translation Quotient of any of the prizes I looked at. Of the 11 winning books from 1995 to 2005, eight have been translated into English. The 2006 winner, Les Bienveillantes, was written in French by an American, and was one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2008.Goncourt winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 73%)1995 – Andrëi Makine, Dreams of My Russian Summers (Arcade)1997 – Patrick Rambaud, The Battle (Grove)1998 – Paule Constant, Trading Secrets (University of Nebraska Press)1999 – Jean Echenoz, I’m Gone (New Press)2000 – Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Ingrid Caven (City Lights)2001 – Jean-Christophe Rufin, Brazil Red (Norton)2003 – Jacques-Pierre Amette, Brecht’s Mistress (New Press)2004 – Laurent Gaudé, The House of Scorta (MacAdam/Cage)2. Spanish-Language LiteratureNovelists working in Spanish have a number of interesting prizes at their disposal, including the Cervantes Prize, given for lifetime achievement. The premier prize for a single novel is pretty widely recognized to be the semiannual Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos. Three out of the six winners from 1995 – 2005 have been translated into English; some authors, like Enrique Vila-Matas, have had works other than their Gallegos-winners translated.RRómulo Gallegos winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 50%)1995 – Javier Marías (Spain), Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (New Directions)1997 – Ángeles Mastretta (Mexico), Lovesick (Riverhead)1999 – Roberto Bolaño (Chile), The Savage Detectives (FSG)3. Italian LiteratureThe preeminent Italian prize is the Premio Strega; the Italians seem to do a pretty good job getting books chosen for the Strega translated into English. Of the 11 winners between 1995 and 2005, three have been translated into English, and several authors have had other titles appear in the U.S.Strega winners in translation 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 27%)1999 – Dacia Maraini, Darkness (Steerforth)2002 – Margaret Mazzantini, Don’t Move (Anchor)2003 – Melania G. Mazzucco Vita (FSG)4. Russian LiteratureThis one was a disappointment. Russian is one of the great literary languages, and has its own Booker-Open Russia Literary Prize. Monumental winners like Georgy Vladimov’s The General and His Army (1995) would seem to be right up my alley – but haven’t been translated into English. Vasily Aksyonov, a Millions favorite and winner of the Russian Booker in 2004, has had a number of books appear in the U.S. But apparently, only one book that took home the prize between 1995 and 2005 has itself been translated.Russian Booker winners in translation 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 9%)2003 – Ruben Gallego White On Black (Harcourt)5. German-Language LiteratureI have to admit, this surprised me. I would have expected German speakers, with their robust literary heritage, to coronate a single book each year to present to the world. Then again, given the history of the last 150 years, the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, and so on, I suppose it’s not surprising that there is some fragmentation when it comes to awards. Perhaps as a remedy, the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in 2005 created the German Book Prize. But according to my (admittedly cursory) research, the preeminent prizes for a single work of German-language fiction during the 1995 – 2005 period would have been Austria’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Alfred Döblin Prize (endowed by Günter Grass). Surprisingly, out of the 17 combined winners of these two prizes from 1995 – 2005, only one was translated into English. (The percentage goes up slightly, to two out of 20, if we throw in the great Ingo Schulze’s, 33 Moments of Happiness, which won the Döblin “Förderpreis,” [meaning, first novel prize?] in 1995).Döblin and Bachmann winners in translation, 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 6%)1995 – Norbert Gstrein, English Years (Minerva [U.K.])Japanese LiteratureA mixed bag here. The Tanizaki Prize would seem to confer just the kind of distinction a publisher would want – it’s so selective that some years, they don’t even give it out – and yet none of the 12 winners from 1995 to 2005 have been translated into English. (There were two winners in 1997, 2000, and 2005). Then again, Yuko Tsushima, who won in 1998 and Yoko Tawada, who won in 2003, have had other works translated into English, and Ryu Murakami has been translated quite often.Tanizaki Winners in translation, 1995 – 2005 (TQ: 0%)