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Long Literary Shadows On Nobel Shortlist

<p>Adonis, born Ali Ahmad Said Esber, is one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature.</p>
<p>Adonis, born Ali Ahmad Said Esber, is one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature.</p>

They are the Nobel literature bridesmaids. Every year, they appear on Ladbrokes' betting site alongside their odds of winning. Les Murray: 16/1. Cees Nooteboom: 33/1. Claudio Magris: 40/1.

Perennial names probably more familiar to American readers include Haruki Murakami (7/1), Chinua Achebe and Amos Oz. The latter two aren't even ranked by Ladbrokes this time around. If recent history is any indicator, that means they've got a decent shot of winning. The Ladbrokes lads, after all, did not bother to place odds for such recent winners as Herta Muller or Elfriede Jelinek.

Here in the U.S., drums are beating for Philip Roth. But those same drums are beating abroad, too. The UK's Guardian newspaper nagged Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl this week about whether Roth would everwin. "If I had a dollar whenever I got that question," he sighed. Roth's brilliant, prodigious output is certainly Nobel-esque. His greatest books, like Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral are arguably world classics. And with a novel like The Plot Against America, he's imagined the sort of externalized literature of global consequences so beloved by the Swedish Academy.

But the Academy also tends to reward writers who've worked in multiple genres — novels, dramas, essays, poems, translations — and that might hamper Roth and another constant Nobel bridesmaid, Tomas Tranströmer. He's a Swedish surrealist poet who's also spent a career as a psychiatrist working with institutionalized children.

A lot of folks around the world are predicting that the bouquet will finally be caught by Adonis, who's been mentioned as a contender for at least a decade. A victory by the Syrian-born poet would resonate in the wake of the Arab Spring, as people are still being jailed, beaten and killed while struggling, in part for free expression.

Some younger Arab intellectuals have criticized Adonis for not being involved enough with the Arab Spring and for being too Western in his ideological allegiances. It's true that Adonis has always been interested in bridging East and West — he helped introduce modern experimental free verse into Arabic poetry and has said he considers Nietzsche and Rimbaud among his most profound influences. But he's written movingly about the Arab Spring for months.

"I do not know how to cry," he wrote last May about protestors in Syria for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Hayat. "And even if I did, I would rather my eyes become two fountains of tears: a southern one for Daraa, and a northern one for Banyas and Jebla."

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