Peace or literature: the Prize is Nobel, but it isn’t noble

First, some name dropping, in two groups of writers.

Group 1: Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Gabriela Mistral, Jose Echeragay, Giosue Carducci, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Selma Lagerlof, Paul Heyse, Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Dario Fo.

Group 2: Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost.

The writers in the first group are all Nobel laureates. The writers in the second group aren’t. Readily admitting to ignorance, I have to confess that, though I’ve read close to every word produced by the second group, I haven’t read a single one produced by the first. Still, taking a wild stab in the dark, I don’t think it would stretch credibility too much to suggest that the writers in the second group perhaps deserved the accolade a tad more.

Clearly, literary merit, if it’s a criterion at all, isn’t the sole criterion. One suspects that politics has a role to play as well, be that a bias towards Scandinavian writers or those leaning to the left. And the Nobel Committee gives ample grounds for such ugly suspicions.

Borges, for example, was denied the Nobel for his conservative views and his support of General Pinochet. Without getting into tedious comparisons between Pinochet and Castro’s stooge Allende, one could simply recall that the Committee saw fit to award the Prize to Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Neruda. Both were admirers and active supporters of Stalin, and Neruda actually ran a communist spy ring in Latin America. Nothing wrong with their politics then.

But it’s the Nobel Peace Prize that’s truly outrageous, listing as it does among its winners the mass murderer Yasser Arafat, along with the Vietnamese communist Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger. The last two gentlemen were jointly honoured in 1973 for having negotiated the surrender of South Vietnam to the communists. When South Vietnam was overrun in 1975, Le Duc Tho at least had the decency to reject the Prize. Dr Kissinger didn’t.

But it’s the story of the 2007 Prize that I find particularly disgusting. Nominated for it was Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska), the 97-year-old Polish Catholic who during the war saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from Treblinka’s gas chambers. A social worker employed by a Catholic charity, she’d go into the Warsaw Ghetto for the explicit purpose of containing the typhus epidemic. She would then hide children in her pickup truck and take them out of the Ghetto. As a nice touch, Irena Sendler kept a dog in the pickup, to make sure its barking would muffle whatever noises the children might make as she drove through SS checkpoints.

Once the children were out, they were placed with Catholic families, monasteries or convents, and Mrs Sendler supplied them with expertly forged papers. Eventually, the Nazis caught up with this saintly woman. She was brutally tortured, her arms and legs were broken. Mercifully, her charity managed to bribe the German guards taking Mrs Sendler to execution. Her life saved, she lay low for the rest of the war but continued to work behind the scenes, helping to save more Jewish children in Warsaw, Vilnus and elsewhere.

After the war she was persecuted by the Polish communist government, in whose eyes Irena Sendler’s heroism didn’t excuse her links with the underground Land Army and the wartime government in exile. Following the end of communism Mrs Sendler, widely known as ‘the female Schindler’, was awarded Poland’s highest decoration, and similar accolades from Israel and the Vatican.

In 2007, a year before she died, Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But she didn’t get it. The Prize went to a much worthier candidate: Al Gore, for his mendacious, factually ignorant, scare-mongering film on global warming.

The Committee was on a roll, and two years later Barak Obama, a month into his presidency, was nominated for the Prize, which he duly received. Though visibly perplexed, the President nonetheless accepted the award, for which he qualified as much as he did for the Prize in physics or medicine.

O tempora, o mores! as Cicero once exclaimed. If he were alive today, he wouldn’t get the Nobel Prize. 



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