Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Meeting the Man Behind the Nobel Prize

Naguib Mahfouz

About a month ago, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Tomas Transtromer. Two weeks later, I met a man named Sture Allén, who for over a decade served as the Academy’s “permanent secretary.” His job, from 1986 to 1999 was to lead the Academy and announce the winner each year.

“Publishers and writers throughout the world sit with their radios on, waiting for the news,” he told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter in 1998. “It is the time of the highest glory, dignity, and achievement. And they are all waiting. They are all waiting for me.”

Sture Allén came to Cairo to give a lecture on the Nobel Prize in general, and on Naguib Mahfouz, the most famous Egyptian writer of the 20th century, who achieved worldwide fame partially due to the fact that he won the prize in 1988. (This blog is named after one of his novels).

When I arrived, a crowd of older intellectuals and a few young literature students chatted as light jazz was piped in by hidden speakers. This room, the Oriental Hall, looks like a museum to a colonial fantasy of the Arab world, with elaborate latticework and hanging lantern lights. Mahfouz’s wife and two daughters sat in the front row. Above the stage, a large photo of Mahfouz loomed over the scene.

Sture Allen
Allén is now well into his eighties, with a full head of white hair that he combs to the side. He was wearing a grey, wool suit and blue tie with gold stripes that looked a little like prize ribbons. When he speaks, everyone around him quiets down, due to both his poised, powerful gravitas, as well as the fact that he speaks very quietly.

Naguib Mahfouz, who would have turned 100 this year, grew up in a lower middle-class family in Cairo. Throughout his long literary career, he wrote by night and worked by day as a civil servant, first in the Ministry of Religious affairs, and then, when many came to believe he was an atheist, in the Ministry of Culture. He remained single until age 43. His novels were banned in many Arab countries in 1978, when he supported the Camp David peace talks between Egypt and Israel.

In 1989, he defended Salman Rushdie against a fatwa calling for his death, while also saying Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was “insulting” to Muslims. Mahfouz himself had written a book in 1959, Children of Gebelawi, that brought him death threats from Omar Abdul-Rahman, a sheikh later blamed for influencing the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In 1994, when Mahfouz was 82, a follower of Abdul-Rahman stabbed him in the neck. Mahfouz survived.  

In 1988, Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his acceptance, he credited the Arab language as “the real winner of the prize.” Then he declared:

“I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one.”

Sture Allén went to Cairo in 1988 to meet Mahfouz. The author gave the linguist a copy of Adrift on the Nile, a story about indolent youth hanging out on a houseboat during Nasser’s rule. 

Over the course of an hour lecture, Allén managed, through the sheer lethargy of his speech, to leak the mystery out of the Nobel Prize like a balloon while simultaneously preserving the award’s stately majesty. A computational linguist by profession, Allén began by giving a linguistic history of the name “Nobel,” a very dry account in which he seemed to take great joy.

He then analyzed the linguistics of the Swedish adjectives Alfred Nobel had used in his instructions for who should win the award. He explained how the King of Sweden wanted the Academy to have twenty members, but the Swedish word for twenty was not  “sonorous” enough, so he instead made it eighteen members, because eighteen, arton, is apparently “very sonorous” in Swedish. “Interesting, but stuffy,” I scribbled down in my notebook.

After a ceremonial ribbon cutting of an exhibition in Mahfouz’s honor, journalists waited in line for brief interviews with Allén. The dynamic between us was awkward. The reporters for state-owned newspapers sort of snickered at me, the American, decades younger, from an independent paper. 

Flustered, I made rookie mistakes left and right. The press representative, a brusque woman with thick makeup and a screechy voice told me to have a seat in the interview room. I took a brief walk through the exhibition, and then returned, to find Allén in the room with a reporter. I crept in and took a seat quietly.

The press woman came back and waved for me to come out, though not before interrupting the interview to chastise me. “You cannot be in there!” she shouted. “She [the other reporter] has to feel free to ask him anything without you listening!”

I said I was sorry and rushed out. The focus on secrecy was totally perplexing, and reminded me of the red tape that Mahfouz writes about in many of his accounts of Egyptian bureaucracy.

Finally, I was allowed to enter. I apologized to Allén for disrupting him, and he just sort of looked at me without much expression on his face. We sat side by side, uncomfortably close on a small couch, and I pulled out my recorder. I stumbled through some questions I had written, eventually ending up on one about how in 1989, several members of the Academy had quit when Allén kept the organization from publicly supporting Salman Rushdie. “Rooshdie,” he corrected me, a little brazenly. “There is no Ruh-shdie.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

Allén’s antipathy against using the weight of the Academy’s name towards anything even remotely political is sharp. He recognizes how long it took for writers from non-Western countries to win, but says that’s only a matter of translation. He admits that in order to win an author must be translated into English, French, or Swedish, but won’t go any farther to say there is a political dimension to it. He proudly reiterated the Academy’s autonomy from the Swedish government. “Don’t call the government and tell them who should win,” he says. “They won’t tell us.” Then he waits for silence and pronounces: “Good. You understand.”

“But why is it all so secretive?,” I asked, admittedly showing on my face that I was unconvinced. Allén looked a little offended. “There have been stories,” he said, “of people committing suicide when they did not win. But let’s not talk about these things. Do you have anything else?”

Allén only let down his guard twice the entire evening. The first time was when he quoted Mahfouz’s lecture in acceptance of the award. Allén became teary as he recounted Mahfouz’s insistence that Arabic really won the award, and he was just the language’s fortunate representative. 

During our interview, Allén became almost boyish as he described the awe he still feels for the award, the way everyone in the world literary community waits for the news that for so many years he was privileged to announce.

No matter how controversial, how ideological the award becomes, Allén clings, with a soberness that masks the youthful awe underneath, to this idea of a literary power that rises above all things. Although this can breed skepticism, we all want to believe that too, as we cluster around our radios and wait.

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