The Nobel Prize for literature is probably the only major “literary” prize that sometimes turns the spotlight on poetry. Otherwise, barring one or two poetry prizes that get occasional media attention in delimited and largely national contexts—such as the TS Eliot Prize—most of the so-called international “literary” prizes basically focus on prose fiction, and even there almost always on novels.
As such, one has to commend the Nobel committee for choosing to bestow this year’s laurel on the great Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer. Bloodaxe Books, which had published an excellent selection of Tranströmer’s verse—carefully translated into English by Robin Fulton—about a decade ago, has brought out a New Collected Poems to mark the occasion. This includes some recent poems that had appeared in translation in the US but were not included in the previous Bloodaxe edition, and a short prose autobiography.
Reading the collection, one is struck by how Scandinavian a poet Tranströmer is: This is another thing in favour of this year’s Nobel Prize. Tranströmer, like most good poets, is locally situated to an extent that few successful novelists tend to be today: it is not just where he lives (mostly Stockholm) but how he writes and what he writes about. His nature poems, for instance, can be appreciated by all of us, but they do assume a special depth if one has experienced “nature” in Scandinavia. For instance, take even a simple stanza like this one: “Further north you can see from a summit the blue endless carpet of pine forest/ where the cloud shadows/ are standing still./ No, are flying.”
But that realization, in a non-European like me, also results in the gnawing of a doubt. Would any non-European writer—poet or not—be awarded a Nobel Prize for his or her specificity? Would it, for instance, even go to Mahasweta Devi, whose fiction is far more specifically located than most novels today? I doubt it: Ranging from Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali, as W.B. Yeats and others championed it) to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul and J.M. Coetzee (each of them a great writer in his own way), the Nobel has tended to go to non-European writers only if they are seen as “universal” enough.
We had a rather good Booker shortlist this year, with one exception to my mind. It was a mix of known names that did not disappoint and lesser-known names that were a pleasure to discover. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers fell into the latter category, at least for me. I had never read deWitt before, but will look forward to his novels from now on.
‘Fantasy’ Western: The story of two hired killers
The Sisters Brothers is a funny, action-packed, touching and, at times, thoughtful story of two brothers, hired killers both, in the Gold Rush of the “Wild West”. DeWitt has been hailed as “rejuvenating the Western”, but actually The Sisters Brothers is not a straight Western. While it plays on and with readerly expectations, it does not set out to evoke the Wild West in the detailed, hyperrealist manner of Cormac McCarthy’s Western novels. Instead, it has a sparer, strangely selective narrative style which resembles a kind of fantasy Western—fantasy, not in the sense of simply the fantastic, but in the sense of a highly selective narration of a different time.
Love across the Salt Desert: Selected Short Stories by Keki N. Daruwalla is a good introduction to the short fiction of one of India’s leading English-language poets. The stories are thematically wide-ranging and beautifully crafted. The poet in Daruwalla comes through at times, but never interferes needlessly in the job of the storyteller.
Tabish Khair is the author of the poetry collection Man of Glass and the novel The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org