Magazine article The Spectator

Ignoble Nobel

Magazine article The Spectator

Ignoble Nobel

Article excerpt

THE award of the Nobel Prize for literature to the German author Gunter Grass marks a new phase in the recent capitulation of the prize to political correctness. Following the presentation to such paragons of leftist ideology as the Italian anticlerical playwright Dario Fo in 1997, and the unrepentant Portuguese Stalinist Jose Saramago last year, the Nobel academy must have looked long and hard for someone who would meet their criteria of corrosive anti-Americanism, popularity with middle-brow readers and prolific output.

However, they seem to have come up short, for although Grass was long known for his arrogant beating of tin and other drums against the political values of the West, he is no longer productive as an author and is no longer very well known. Normally, wider audiences tend to scratch their heads and ask `Who?' when the Nobel is announced, since the academy has so consistently favoured obscure radicals such as Fo. Now they will probably respond with comments such as, `Oh, yes, he was a writer once, wasn't he?'

Gunter Grass became famous in the 1950s and 1960s with his Danzig trilogy The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years - all of which sold well in many languages. They were not much in terms of literary greatness -- superficial tales of life in Germany under the Nazis, with occasional shocking effects - but he won many prizes. He also decided that, as a German intellectual, it was necessary for him to be political as well as literary. He became an active supporter of the Social Democrats and toured Germany as a speaker for Willi Brandt and others. The experience seems to have gone to his head rather badly, for in the 1970s he became a strident, globetrotting figure specialising in anti-Western rhetoric.

Doubtless the nadir of his career as a thinker came during the civil war in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s. This fat little man, always peering over the half-moon spectacles perched on his nose, with his weedy moustache and shabby donkey jacket, seemed an obvious caricature of the ultimate German leftist intellectual of the 1930s, the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. He had only one message: the virtuous Sandinistas were victims of a quintessentially evil American imperialism.

I remember vividly the response of the great Nicaraguan poet and journalist, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, editor of the embattled Managua daily La Prensa, which faced repeated attempts to destroy it by the Sandinistas, to the speechifying of Grass: `Why is this man defending a system here that he would never tolerate at home?' Cuadra, who well deserves but would never receive a Nobel prize, asked me in genuine puzzlement. By that, he meant that Grass promoted the censorship and suppression of journalism and literature in a way that, had it been attempted on German soil, would have stirred him and his cohorts to outrage, if not bomb-throwing protest.

The great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who received his Nobel prize in 1990 in token recognition that not every Hispanic intellectual was an acolyte of Castro, asked the same question in public. The Latin authors could never figure out why rich writers from the First World carried water for sleazy leftist dictators. Perhaps people like Cuadra and Paz were lucky in never becoming inured to something to which the rest of us have had to accustom ourselves: the totalitarian vanity of the successful intellectual.

Grass should have known better. He had, after all, joined the Hitler Youth during the Nazi ascendancy - the kind of blot that, in the case of a rightist author, would have brought about his ostracism from the community of the civilised, but which, thanks to Grass's leftism, was considered a youthful error. …

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