“The king known as Mughal-e-Azam
Had a heart attack, almost a spasm
When told, it would seem
That his heir prince Salim
Was headlong in a romantic chasm”
From The Case of the Ashamed Vahu, by Bachchoo
The only Nobel Prize winner with whom I had a profound friendship was V.S. Naipaul. I have met and socialised with Kazuo Ishiguro at literary festivals, at one of which he said: “I know that people think we Japanese are boring, but I am inventing new ways to be boring!”
Then again, I would tag along at Sir Vidia’s request, to Harold Pinter’s house and parties, not being invited there on my own steam.
I have over the years been in the audiences of two Nobel laureates — Linus Pauling, who told his audience that Vitamin C worked against colds, though no causal connection had been established; and Bob Dylan, whose vastly crowded gigs I attended.
The Nobel awards have at times been controversial. Literary commentators wondered whether Dylan’s lyrics could be classified as literature and whether these lyrics — sometimes folkish, mysterious, and littered with mixed metaphors — qualified for the supreme prize. Myself? I was a supporter of the fact that the dust had been shaken off the literature prize and Bob’s constructing or rendering the zeitgeist in words had been rewarded.
These ramblings, gentle reader, are occasioned by an article by one Rod Liddle in a right-wing weekly accusing the Nobel committee of — let’s just say — wrong-mindedness. Rod, an old moaner, may on this occasion have a point. He accuses the Nobel-wallahs of giving Barack Obama the Peace Prize before he had done anything to deserve it. That may not be accurate, but the observation that follows most certainly is.
In 2019, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He was presumably awarded this globally prestigious accolade because he made temporary peace with the northern dissidents of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — a pretty vicious, murderous outfit.
Since winning the prize, however, Abiy Ahmed has cancelled democratic elections, banned the Internet and imprisoned opponents and critics in Ethiopia, perpetrating his dictatorship, reversing the peace policy against the Tigrayans, sending in his army to massacre civilians and rape women as retribution for their demand of secession.
Liddle quotes a very nasty piece of “humour” from an address by Ahmed to Ethiopian ambassadors. Speaking about his army’s raid into Tigray territory, he said: “Those who went to Adwa to fight didn’t just go and come back. Each of them had about ten kids…” The ambassadors laughed and applauded. There’s no Nobel Nastiness or Rape Prize.
It’s obvious that the Peace Prize committee assesses candidates by what they have just done and not by what they may do later. None of us has a crystal ball which predicts the future, but history and culture are reasonable indicators of the way events may progress in any country or part of our troubled world.
The categories for awards set out in Alfred Nobel’s will are for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace. In the 1960s a bank endowed a new Nobel Prize for Economics — whose one winner was our own Amartya Sen (whom I have never encountered, but to whom the closest I can claim to have got, since I’m in a boasting mood, is a firm friendship with his daughter Nandana, the writer, poet and actress).
I suppose the criteria for awarding the Nobel to physicists, chemists and medical researchers are uncontroversial. A discovery that furthers human understanding of our universe or contributes to the conquest of some ill that flesh is heir to, is easy to spot and appreciate.
Linus Pauling was one of the very few individuals to have won two unrelated Nobel prizes for two absolutely unrelated (or are they?) aspects of their lives. His work in quantum chemistry and molecular biology secured the Chemistry Prize. Pauling went on to oppose nuclear weaponry, the Vietnam war and to initiate peace efforts using the influence that he had. He was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The literature Nobel for Dylan would indicate that the Swedish Academy seems to accept an evolving or progressive definition of the criteria for the award. Would this apply to the Peace Prize? Physics, chemistry and medicine are pretty rigidly defined, whereas literature, peace and economics seem to have an inherent flexibility or elasticity.
Would, for instance, the economics prize be awarded to an Indian finance minister who soaked the capitalists and began a universal scheme of unemployment insurance? I am aware that no such minister exists — but there’s always hope when, and if ever, the sums add up or are forced to add up?
The Nobel Peace Prize has so far been awarded to those who initiate the end of conflict. Yes, there are many wars and conflicts in our nasty world and those who attempt to put an end to them deserve the recognition such a prize bestows. But there are other forms of conflict — for instance, those between the human species and the mutating species of the coronavirus now plaguing the planet.
So, would the gift and administration of free or philanthropically cheap vaccinations which can, and have, saved millions of lives of children in Africa and Asia from all manner of disease, qualify as achievements that deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?