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a tale of four speeches

At the beginning of December last year, the newly named Nobel Laureate in Literature, J.M.G. Le Clézio, addressed the Swedish Academy. The Nobel Lecture is typically an opportunity to say thank you and to declare the writer’s essential loyalties. Both tasks are often accomplished as one: to indicate indebtedness can itself be a form of gratitude.

For the literature Laureates, this indebtedness is often narrated around personal origins and writerly influences. We see the writer, sometimes for the first time, emerge from the shadow of his or her books. It is interesting to look at Le Clézio’s speech in the context of three other Nobel Lectures from the past decade.

V.S. Naipaul was awarded the prize in 2001, and caused a furore when he thanked the United Kingdom, of which he is a subject, and India, the land of his ancestors, but not Trinidad, where he was born and raised. This was in keeping with Naipaul’s often stated dismay at “half-formed” societies and the “mimic men” who populated them. His rejection of Trinidad was merely the visible symptom of a larger rejection: a rejection of Africa, a rejection of what one scholar has termed “the darker nations.” Naipaul’s actual debt to Africa is deep: he has travelled widely on the continent and has written many narratives on it, from the insightful Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro to the troubling A Bend in the River. Research for his current project brought him to Nigeria last year. But, facing the Swedish Academy seven years ago, he only thanked Proust. The rest—Trinidad, Africa, the Muslim world—were characterised by him as “areas of darkness.”

Two years after Naipaul’s win, the prize went to an African, albeit a white one. J.M. Coetzee’s deep ethical commitment, and the stunned clarity with which he has approached the horrors of apartheid, merited him the prize. However his speech was (somewhat in keeping with Coetzee’s wily approach to public proclamations) a bloodless fable set in Lincolnshire. The story is told by Robinson Crusoe, and vaguely concerns the interaction between Crusoe and “his man,” presumably Crusoe’s servant, Friday. Coetzee is concerned, as always, to limit himself only to what can be honestly said—in this case, about the relationship between two men of different backgrounds. Is brotherhood possible? Must there always be a master and a slave? Coetzee’s reticence is admirable, especially in comparison with Naipaul’s blanket condemnations. Yet we find ourselves wishing he would directly address the Africa of his birth, and the ways in which Africans have influenced the practice of his art.

The 2007 winner was Doris Lessing, another white African. Lessing is a committed feminist writer and an open-hearted human rights activist. Her touch is sure in outlining the many ways in which history has short-changed women and denigrated female energies. All her writing has been a corrective to those denigrations and, unlike Coetzee and Naipaul, she addresses human rights directly in her lecture. At the centre of it is a simple story about libraries and Zimbabwe. But Lessing’s Africans are poor, bare, forked creatures, learning to read English from the labels on jam jars and from discarded encyclopedias. Her good-hearted descriptions, and her pleas to save Africa, draw me up short. They ring false in my ears, because she has selected a convenient Africa, one that is defined only by poverty and need.

Her story about a poor young mother, “trudging through the dust,” who falls in love with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina fails to move me because she has not also found room for African writers, universities, schools, or newspapers. For Lessing, if there is a relationship at all between the African and the Westerner, it is one of supplicant and benefactor. Her speech does not even share the reticence and subtlety of Coetzee, who longs for brotherhood at the same time that he mourns its absence.

This brings us to Le Clézio, a Frenchman who has lived all over the world (including a spell, as a child, in Onitsha). Le Clézio approached the podium of the Swedish Academy with a rather startling humility. He gave heartfelt thanks “to the Africans: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ahmadou Kourouma, To the great Mauritian author Malcolm de Chazal, who wrote, Mongo Beti, to Alan Paton’samong other things, Judas.” He gave thanks to Aimé Césaire, the great poet from Martinique. He paid homage to novelists from Mexico and India. And, yes, he also thanked Rabelais and Dante and Joyce.

Le Clézio’s speech is a bracing experience, a high-definition picture of the way we read now, of the way we live: no matter who we are, or where we are, our debts are deep and numerous. No African writer who claims to owe the West nothing can be taken seriously, nor can any Western writer who denies, in this day and age, a profound debt to the searing intellects of “the darker nations.” In this tale of four speeches from the new millennium, Le Clézio’s is the one that best illuminates our multifarious present.

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