Who do you think chooses the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature? You might say: the Swedish Academy or, at least, a group of literary experts in Stockholm.
Well, although you are technically right, the truth is that the winner for the past two years has been chosen by the man whose trial opened in Baghdad last Wednesday. Surprised? Don't be. Saddam Hussein al-Takriti, the man who bullied and butchered the people of Iraq for three decades, is emerging as an undeclared hero of some self-styled liberals in the West who continue to oppose the liberation of Iraq because of their hatred of the United States.
Last year's winner, the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, was praised for her opposition to "illegal use of force in international affairs", a code word for the liberation of Iraq in 2004. A similar phrase is now used to justify the choice of this year's winner, the British playwright Harold Pinter.
Jelinek, a Stalinist on the payroll of the Austrian Communist Party for years, first distinguished herself by claiming that the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine had been the work of saboteurs sent by the US to undermine the Soviet Union. More recently she has added her voice to those who insist that it was "a crime" to drive the Taliban out of Kabul and dislodge Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
"I have no idea why they gave me the award," Pinter said with mock self-deprecation. But the literary Swedes knew why they had chosen him: his presence at virtually every demonstration opposed to the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pinter had already won himself a special place in the history of "useful idiots" by describing the 9/11 attacks as "a justified retaliation" by Islamist militants. After the NATO intervention that stopped the Serbian genocide against Muslims in Kosovo, Pinter described US and Britain as Tony Bair as "terrorist powers" . He then proceeded to form a committee to defend Slobodan Milosevic, aka "the Butcher of Belgrade", now being tried at the International War Tribunal at The Hague for crimes against humanity.
People are, of course, free to think and do whatever they like as long as they respect the law in a democratic state. A writer's work should be judged independently of his other activities, including in the political field. Charles Baudelaire was at times on the borderline of criminality. Balzac was something of a rogue and Stendhal would fail the test of ethics in aspects of private life. In his politics, T.S Eliot was a reactionary while Ezra Pound was a member of the Italian Fascist Party. In the case of all those poets and writers, however, what mattered was the quality of their work.
The problem with the Nobel committee's recent choices, especially those of Jelinek and Pinter, is that their work is as mediocre as their political beliefs are weird.
Jelinek has tried every trick, including pornography, to make her work interesting, and failed. As for Pinter, he made his name by riding the wave of "the theatre of the absurd" when it was still fashionable four decades ago. Imitating Samuel Becket who had imitated the Dadaists, Pinter wrote a couple of plays distinguished by the use of banal prattle as pseudo- sophisticated dialogue. Since then he has been a fixture of the British art scene, directing pseudo-intellectual television plays, writing screenplays for forgettable arty-farty films, and, above all, taking part in "struggles for causes". In other words he has been a political activist on the fringes of champagne-and-caviar-socialism. But a writer of merit, he has not been.
Even as political activists Jelinek and Pinter are selective.
For example, they supported Kurdish demands for freedom in Turkey but opposed the same when it came to Kurds in Iran and Iraq. The reason was simple: Turkey is an ally of the US in NATO and thus should be attacked on every opportunity. Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Iran under the mullahs, on the other hand, claimed to be enemies of the US and thus deserved to be treated with kid gloves. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, neither Jelinek nor Pinter protested. But when he was expelled from Kuwait both denounced" Imperialist intervention".
The steady politicisation of the Nobel Prize is too obvious to dismiss as a freak.
Of the 10 laureates named since 1996 eight are Europeans. Of those eight three are members of the Communist Party in their respective countries: Jelinek in Austria, Jose Saramago (the 1998 winner) in Portugal, and Dario Fo (the 1997 winner) in Italy. Of the three only Saramago could be regarded as worth reading. Two other winners, Polish poetess Wislawa Szymborska (winner in 1996) and Hungarian writer, Imre Kertesz (winner in 2002) had also been members of the Communist Party in their countries, although by expediency rather than belief.
Of the remaining five winners, two, the German novelist Gunther Grass (winner in 1999) and, of course, Pinter are firmly on the left. Grass, for example, regretted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989.
Of the 10 winners one, the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee (winner in 2003), has no distinct political line while his literary work could be described as "tolerable" at best. The sole Chinese on the list is Gao Xingjiang (winner in 2000) who could also be regarded as a European because he has lived in France for decades. Gao, also a painter, is largely apolitical and his magnum opus "The Soul Mountain" is an almost annoying attempt at experimental writing.
That leaves V.S Naipul, the British novelist of Trinidadian origin, who won in 2001, as the only right-winger in the list. Naipul, whose politics could be as obnoxious on the right as that of Pinter on the left, is, nevertheless, a great writer. It is that fact that distinguishes him from the rest of the crowd on the list.
Assuming that The Committee was looking for a British author opposed to the liberation of Iraq, there was still no need to cheapen the prize further by giving it to Pinter. A better choice would have been Alain Bennet who is as anti-Bush and anti-Blair as Pinter but who, unlike Pinter, is also an interesting writer.
Come to think of it the committee could have made a more logical choice: Saddam Hussein himself. After all, the fallen despot has published two novels and is committing another one in prison. He is also as opposed to the liberation of Iraq as Pinter.
What is the Nobel committee telling the world?
Its first message is that literature is produced largely, if not only, in Europe. The committee is not interested in writers and poets from other places, including the Arab world and Iran, for example. The US is out because it is " The Great Satan" while Russia and China are no longer interesting because they have adopted capitalism. Secondly, the committee is saying that to win a writer has to be leftist, even if only champagne-and-caviar left. He or she must certainly be anti-American as a minimum.
Almost 50 years ago Jean-Paul Sartre said that anyone not on the left was not human. Sartre won the Nobel, which he refused to collect. The Stockholm committee seems to have adopted Sartre's disgusting phrase as its devise.