Sunday Lifestyle

The Nobel Prize and I: Reaching for the top and not getting there

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

When the Nobel Literature Prize lotto season started last Oct. 1, Victor Mather wrote in the New York Times how bookmakers in London put forward a list of odds on which writer would win the prize. Wrote Mr. Mather: “Unlikely hopefuls are the Finnish author Gosta Agren and the Filipino novelist F. Sionil Jose.”

Since those venerable members of the Swedish Academy are very secretive about the selection process, Mr. Mather must have an “in” in Stockholm; the revelation, the details of their selection can only be made after 50 years.

That I was mentioned again as Nobel candidate should please me. I am not playing coy. At those convocations to which I am invited to speak, almost always the question of when I’ll get it arises and what would I say?

The prize, if by some miracle it is bestowed on this tired old hack, means so much, not just to me, but to some of my countrymen. A few have told me they should be proud not only of Manny Pacquiao and our international beauty pageant winners. I am sorry to disappoint them.

The truth is I have stopped dreaming of the Prize for sometime now. By doing so I can attend to my chores without being anaesthetized by dreaming. In the first place, as a poor boy from an anonymous farming village, the Prize had seemed so distant and  unreachable.

It all started sometime in the early ‘80s; the Straits Times in Singapore, prophesized that I would most probably be the first Nobel laureate from Southeast Asia. That gladsome prophecy was soon echoed in the United States, Japan, France.

When I did not get the Prize soon enough, a Japanese professor, true to form, commented that maybe those old men in Stockholm preferred the literature written in the mother tongue of the candidates; after all, the Japanese Nobel laureates, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe wrote in Japanese.

I gave the observation little thought. I have always told our aspiring writers to write in the language they know best and for me, it’s English — what our history has decreed. For an Ilokano like myself to master a foreign language is an achievement — not a liability. By achieving this, I have willfully joined the English literary tradition — Chaucer, Shakespeare, Faulkner — and they are all looking over my shoulder. But I know I am rooted to our own; Pedro Bukaneg who wrote the Ilokano epic “The Life of Lam-ang,” to Jose Rizal, our national hero who wrote in Spanish. As my American editor at Random House, Samuel Vaughan, flattered me:  Joseph Conrad, a Pole, wrote in English that was elegant and precise like mine.

I also assumed that the Scandinavians have read me; after all, my novel, Mass, was published in Stockholm and Copenhagen. And Sin, that novel about our Spanish mestizo elite, was published in Oslo.

Then, my short story collection, The God Stealer, was reviewed positively in Stockholm’s Svenska Dagbladet by no less than the Swedish Academy member, Artur Lundkvist.

And soon after, in the ‘90s, I got a note from the American poet and novelist Kelly Cherry. She said that I was on the Nobel short list that year! Like Mr. Mather, she must be privy, too, to the secret sessions in Stockholm.

I dreamed on — not so much about the honor, but the windfall — P60 million at the current exchange rate — how I could wipe out my debts in one fell swoop, enlarge my tiny bookshop to include a second hand and antiquarian section, help my poor relatives and Filipino writers in distress and penury. I have clear in my mind the foundation I’ll set up. even its name, PALPEN.

The years passed and each Nobel season gripped me with hope. In the first week of October each year, I’d wait for a call from Sweden. None came. I’ve read criticisms of the Swedish Academy — that its members are Eurocentric, that their decisions are not literary but political, favoring activist writers. I fully agree with them in using the Prize to champion liberty — after all, of what use is literature if it does not affirm humanity?

And how about Eurocentrism?

I recalled awardees in the recent past. Those Swedes have already attended to Africa, the Middle East, East Asia and South America, even the far  South, Australia. I hope they’ll turn to Southeast Asia soon where tradition and modernity are fusing and producing a literature as vibrant as the region itself. I can name half a dozen Filipino poets, playwrights and novelists who should be Nobel candidates in the near future if they persevere.

Though unimposing, Solidaridad — the bookshop which sustains my family’s modest lifestyle — has been visited by famous writers, three Nobel Prize winners, Wole Soyinka, Gunter Grass, Mario Vargas Llosa and celebrities like Norman Mailer.

I appreciated Norman very much. At the time he was in my bookshop, he told the writers present how he envied the Russian authors, Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, who got the Prize for their quality writing and courageous opposition to the Soviet regime. As Norman explained it, were he in the Soviet Union, he would have danced to the Soviet tune — he was much too addicted to comfort.

Then Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Chinua Achebe of Nigeria and Norman Mailer — world famous all and creators of far more works of literature than I, a virtual pygmy from a laid-back nation — they died without being honored with a Nobel. So who am I to want what, with their superior achievement, they did not get? The thought was painfully humbling; those old men in Stockholm knew the score.

As Mr. Mather pointed out in his report on the Nobel lotto, the odds are mercurial and the bets are quite low — an average of five to 15 dollars. Last year, Bob Dylan the American poet, was the favorite. This year, Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, was on the top. Both lost. This week, in a gala ceremony at the Swedish Academy, the King of Sweden will present the Nobel to the Canadian writer Alice Munro, age 83.

I am 89.











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