Three Hundred and Eighty-First Asic – Nobel Prize in literature 2016, Part 3


Nobelpris_medaljWhen the Secretary of the Swedish Academy announces this year’s winner of the prestigeous Nobel Prize in literature, many of the bookmakers have been biting their nails for a few days. As always we also meet different experts who share their particular viewpoint, such as the literature critics invited to the studio at SVT today:


Will this year’s winner be one of the favorites or not? I keep hoping for Joyce Carol Oates, year after year. I think the committee has put a spell on her for some reason, since she never seems to be good enough in the competition.

According to Swedish newspapers this year, for instance Dagens Nyheter (DN), names like Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Bob Dylan (USA),  Ali Ahmad Said Asbar more known as Adonis (Syria) or Haruki Murakami (Japan) have been mentioned as possible winners.

Nobel Prize in literature 2016 goes to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expression within the American Song Tradition

Now that we know the winner, I guess the hunt for books starts right away! Everyone likes to read the Nobel Prize winner in order to follow the debate… I would most certainly be one of them who would like to give my opinion for questions such as Is this good literature or not? Did you like this year’s winner? 

Three Hundred and Seventy-Ninth Asic – Nobel Prize in literature 2016, Part 1

What Makes a Good Book Good Enough?

That is one of the things that keeps me busy when I start reading any book whatsoever… Like many other students I was forced to read several books by Nobel Prize winners in school as a teenager, and I guess my teachers picked the novels for different reasons… One of the authors I started to like by reading in school was John Steinbeck. I was thrilled by the way Steinbeck built up his characters in ”Of Mice and Men” and how the story developed.  From a few hints on how George and Lennie had to move on again, after something terrible had happened, I realized I was already thinking; What had happened? As a young reader of a classic novel I was thrilled enough to keep reading until the very last page… I also read ”The Pearl” with great interest and without any effort, but for a novel like ”The Grapes of Wrath” it takes 455 pages before you know the end of the story. As a young reader, I did not meet that challenge, but this summer, during a vaction in California, ”The Grapes of Wrath” was my perfect companion. I drove past the road sign with ”Salinas” and I went to Monterey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium where a section in the Museum describes John Steinbeck’s writing and I was happy to know that in my car, the book was waiting for me to turn the next page and the next…


John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in 1962,

”for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”

To me as a Swedish reader, both when I was young and now, I  must say Steinbeck really made a difference. I can see his deep engagement concerning important issues in society and although ”The Grapes of Wrath” was written in 1938 and first published in 1939, the content is extremely important also in 2016. In Europe where I live, migration is an every day topic, since many thousands of people are on the move between different countries. Some end up in camps or in asylum seeking procedures where bureaucratic systems cannot handle the massive number of applications quickly enough. Migrants today, face the same kind of ignorance and racism as the Okies (people from Oklahoma, moving to California) in Steinbeck’s novel. Migrants both now and then, left for the thought of a better future, filled with hope, but also fear. Their plans may be delayed or sometimes changed, and for a few the plans and hopes may never be fulfilled, due to accidents or other problems along the way.

Describing the process of change in a person’s life, like Steinbeck does in ”The Grapes of Wrath”, is a delicate matter, since it is walking on a thin line between being true or being pathetic. Neither can you exaggerate too much nor be too shallow. When the story begins we meet the American state Oklahoma when the weather conditions have been very poor for a long time. Draught and winds have left the land destroyed and every corn field has a layer of dust that makes the corn worthless. The protagonist Tom Joad, is an ex-convict from Mac Alester, where he sat four years for homicide. Now he is out on parole. Tom Joad comes back home in company with an old friend of the family, Jim Casy. In order to find job and better opportunities the Joads decide to leave Oklahoma for California. During the long trip from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to California both Grandpa and Grandma die. Tom’s brother Noah, and his sister’s boyfriend Connie leave the family for different reasons, but the rest of the family stick together. Ma and Pa, Tom and his brother Al, their sister Rosasharn who is pregnant and the younger children Ruthie and Windfield all come to California after a very tough trip through several states, over mountains and finally through the desert.

The novel very closely describes the extremely poor conditions for migrant workers in California in the thirties. Racism, cruelty and violence together with greed seems to be the rule and being from Oklahoma, means being an Okie, which is a stigmatised group at the time. No matter how hard they work, they seem to face very little understanding and empathy from the Californians. The Joads and the other Okies move from one workplace to the other and get less paid for each time they move, so it seems. For several reasons Tom gets in trouble again.


Throughout the novel, Steinbeck give descriptions of the surrounding landscape and certain topics of interest. One of the chapters is like a dialogue between a car salesman and an Okie buyer and written with humor, although the underlying message is that many poor Okies were fooled by the car dealers, selling off good cattle or mules in trade for a jalopy. Another such chapter is a very nice description of a few instruments, the harmonica, the guitar and the fiddle and how they blend in together for the coming dance evening, when a certain piece of music is played. That is also where ”Swedes up in Dakota” (p 342) are mentioned, which is fun to read for me as Swedish.

But apart from these humorous chapters, there are also some very critical topics, as when Steinbeck describes how land owners had too much fruit and too much potatoes, too many pigs and instead of giving the food to the extremely poor workers, they poisoned the potatoes, drowned the pigs and drenched the fruit in kerosene, only for the pleasure of not giving it to the starving workers. That is when ”The Grapes of Wrath”(p 349) is uttered…

For a period of time, the Joads live in the Weedpatch camp, which is a state camp. For the first time in their lives, Ruthie and Windfield see toilets. The workers are all involved in taking care of the camp together, making sure it is kept clean. Here the Joads meet other people they can trust and make friends with and for a moment the reader is fooled to think this book has a happy ending…

I highly recommend ”The Grapes of Wrath” if you would like to get a glimpse of migrant life from the inside. The novel reveal several complex issues and through the Joads and their discussions throughout the novel, you and I get a chance to consider those issues, too. With the coming election in the USA, the voters can decide whether there will be harder times or not for migrant workers from abroad, picking fruit and cotton in California for the benefit of American producers. Some of the migrants came there just like the Joads, with the hope of a better future. Some of the current Californians are likely to be decendants from Okies who came in the thirties.

Let us read books like ”The Grapes of Wrath” and never forget what made us the ones we are today.


Three Hundred and Eightieth Asic – Nobel Prize in literature 2016, Part 2

About a year ago I was eagerly waiting for the announcement of the Nobel Prize winner in literature for 2015. It turned out to be Svetlana Alexievich, an author I had never even heard of. I spent the next few weeks reading her books. I then wrote a few Asics on the topic and here is one of them:

The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories written by the Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner of 2015, Svetlana Alexievich, tells another story than ”War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face”. This time Alexievich shows her excel by sharing hundreds of children’s memories from Belarus during the Second World War. I thought my reading ”War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face” would have prepared me for every surprising or somewhat appalling detail in The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories but the fact is, I could not anticipate the way Alexievich had made the interviewed adults share so many exclusive moments from the past, filled with pain, horror and fear. Many of the children had been left behind by parents who either went to fight the enemy in the front army or in partisan groups and left their children with relatives. Many children were still in orphanages at the end of the war. Many parents never came back and their children still miss them:

”I’m already fifty-one, I am a mother myself, but I really do want a mother!” says one of the surviving children when interviewed by Alexievich.

What makes this book extraordinary is the way the author let short excerpts of longer interviews carry a few main topics that together form a war narrative we have never ever read before. The main topic is of course ”What happened in Belarus during the war?” however from a child’s point of view we rather see other topics, such as ”What happened to me when I lost my parents in the war?” or ”How could I survive although I didn’t have anything to eat except potato peels and grass?” and ”How could I survive and become an ordinary citizen after what I endured during the war?” What is even more interesting is that the reader is invited to read between the lines and make sense of all the narratives.

The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories is close to the limit of what is bearable to read. One of the reasons why it gets under your skin might be that Alexievich has told the interviewed narrators to try and remember the way they thought when they were children. Obviously Alexievich succceeded since the narratives all seem to be told by children and not by adults remembering their childhood! From each narrator, Alexievich has found a central quote and the story is in a way interrupted by those quotes, changes topic quite often, but since the quotes are followed by the names of the narrator and their occupation as adults, the structure of the novel makes sense and the reader has a chance to a short glimpse of the adult reflection, too, since many of them end their narrative with a short comment about ”now”.

When reading the book, I think a lot of the many cups of tea that Alexievich must have had in the homes of the war veterans…and I also marvel about the way she has found something special in each narrative to tell us, however never repeating herself. Actually each narrator tells a completely unique story. They all share memories from the war from the point of view of a child, however the focus differ and thus a kind of quilt of stories takes form in my imagination. I read about personal loss, of fear, hunger, famine, children joining the army. I read about children who cannot go to school because they have to work in a factory or about children who don’t recognise their parents when they (if lucky enough!) meet them again after the war. But underneath the sad and depressing surface I also read about patriotism and pride, about never giving up and never revealing secrets to the enemy. The post war Belarus was completely destroyed and needed to be built up again and some of the narratives shared experiences from the postwar building up period when every survivor was needed, even the children.

But why would this book be necessary to read? The children suffered in so many different ways, but without the adult mind it was impossible for them to fully comprehend why there had to be a war. They needed to grow up in order to do so. We owe it to them to pass it on to next generation what a great loss they experienced when losing their parents, their childhood, their health and their innocence. Again, like when I wrote my previous book review: #This is a book that has to be read and spread!