Nobel Salvages?

Herta Muellar is not going to cringe with defeat and anger, but until October 8 I had not heard about her. In the knowledge stakes that makes me ignorant without the accompanying bliss.

There are two sides to the Nobel Prize for Literature coin. It either goes for straight the straight or the  obscure. And then it makes both categories look like they are accessible and profound.

I am sure that despite her limited exposure outside Romania and Germany, Muellar was also read by the Swedish Academy. She made the citation easy for them as she belongs to an ethnic minority: Her work was lauded for “the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”.

You might want to know what concentration of poetry is. I wanted to. So I sat myself down and began to think of what it could mean. It probably conveys focus and precision; I imagine free verse is not looked down upon by these Academy people.

You might want to know what frankness of prose is. I know about purple prose, prose that drifts or drags, prose that hits out like a whiplash, prose that is too descriptive, prose that is sparse or lean, prose that is emotive, prose that challenges you with metaphors. But frankness of prose? Mind you, it is not frank prose, which might be abrasive, brusque, blunt, straightforward. It is to be understood here that prose by itself wears a mantle of honesty and Ms. Muellar, having adopted this form, is by default honest.

The way the Nobel Committee has been putting people on dole is quite simply ridiculous.

They got some Romanian actor – and again I am completely illiterate – called Ion Caramitru, an anti-communist who we are told rode atop a tank to the television station in Bucharest during the 1989 revolt and now heads the country’s national theatre to say something. So, he said, “She is a very sincere writer and wrote about what happened to her and this is something that must have impressed the judges. This prize is the international recognition of the oppression of what happened in Romania and Eastern Europe.”

I must add here that we are going beyond Muellar. Someone suggested that the Nobel for Literature is concentrated in Europe. The Guardian said it is about “expanding our concept of Europe”.  How many of the op-ed writers who have been talking glowingly about the writer had read any of her work before the Prize was announced? Is it not customary for newspapers to put their literary hacks on the job to do a quick read even as the bookies are busy betting? I understand that such queries are not posed regarding other fields, mainly because they are honed in laboratories and not out for public scrutiny.

Muellar was critical of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule and her country’s feared secret police; she was later censored.

Whether a writer chooses to write about the dispossessed or the possessed, it is as influential as an affectation we acquire upon watching a film character or someone we might idolise. It must be understood that writers too work in labs where they might experiment with form and language and thoughts.

Since the factual cannot be pinned down, we need to grow out of this into interpretation. Interpretations can be feted as just that. And literature may give us hours and hours of pleasure and insight, but it has less impact in tangible terms than how to stop aging or how to kill bacteria by decoding the structure of ribosomes.

It sounds like treason towards the fraternity of writers but if dead bacteria can give me a better life then I can write too. And I promise to put all the forces at work to allow my work “the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose”. As a bonus I shall throw in a bit of what lies in-between.

- - -

This brings us to how proteins are built by ribosomes. I had heard about proteins but knew zilch about ribosomes. I am still grappling with it, and not because an Indian scientist is sharing an award in chemistry for decoding the extra structure of this character which everyone in the scientific world happens to know about. I got interested because haemoglobin is a protein and I am obsessively attached to this haemoglobin for personal reasons.

I got even more interested when I read that “To understand the working of the ribosome is to understand one of the key processes of life” and it can have “staggering implications for human healthcare and synthesing newer antibiotics. This knowledge can be turned around to disable the ribosomes of hostile bacteria that cause diseases in human body. Already many antibiotics are using this knowledge to kill invading bacteria. They target the ribosomes in the bacteria and stop its functioning. Result: the bacteria dies.”

Scientists Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of India, Thomas A. Steitz of US and Ada E. Yonath of Israel worked along the same lines and this is the result of their combined knowledge. Now for all the dead bacteria in the world in the coming years we can thank them.


  1. I did not even bother about this writer. There are others also who I did not know about. Bob Dylan was also in the running. Do you think her gender played a role? About ribosomes, you are the only Indian I have read who is not talking about feeling proud of our scientist!

  2. Fv
    You mention 'frankness of prose'. It could be something like Bertrand Russel's prose , who also won Nobel prize for literature, descibed as being 'hard prose' for all his work which was anything but literature.

  3. another benefit of reading about ribosomes and protein synthesis.....u get to look at this biomachine called man from a diffrent perspective,,,

  4. Ameya:

    Gender could have been one of the reasons and high time too. As for Bob Dylan, it might have been interesting...and one would have been able to see it as how pop can be elevated as it elevates itself.

    Re. 'our scientist', I do not believe in basking in reflected glory.


    "Frankness of prose" is a the term used in the citation, about which I raised doubts. The 'hard prose' of Russell may be very different and I wonder why you say it is hardly literature? Because of its philosophical content?


    I am not like that...why would I look at man as machine? I do have a heart...but here it was beating for the bacteria :)

  5. News:

    "American economists Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson won the 2009 Nobel prize for economics for their work in economic governance. No woman had won the prize since its inception in 1969."


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