Laureates who listen

The 2015 Nobel prizes indicate how much the landscapes of diplomacy and letters have shifted in recent years.
The Swedish Academy praises this year’s laureates for building a pluralistic democracy and forging a “monument to suffering and courage” respectively. Recent winners have pursued similar ends but this year’s citations underscore the importance of individual tenacity and collective patience when addressing complex political problems and the victims of forgotten wrongs.
Following the ouster of its dictator in the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, the delicate task of shoring up Tunisia’s fragile democracy has often fallen to the National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition of businesses, lawyers, labour unions and human rights groups. The group has persisted with dialogue despite being constrained by an inflexible Islamist government, a weak economy, strikes, and political assassinations.
They have sat through volatile negotiations that often verged on collapse. This refusal to cede the public sphere to extreme views has kept Tunisia safe from most of the excesses and disappointments suffered by other states caught up in the Arab Spring. At least so far.
The costly and largely fruitless international struggle against the Islamic State has made consensus-based solutions that straddle political and religious divides more valuable than ever. After hearing of the award, President Beji Caid Essebsi, who took office late last year promising consensus-based politics, said Tunisia had “no other solution but dialogue” and stressed that its “war against terror” could not be won without solidarity.
Likewise, the UN secretary general noted the Quartet’s success at showing “that serious political challenges can be overcome through dialogue and consensual politics.”
It is true the Quartet’s success may not have been possible if former president Ben Ali had permitted a stronger military to develop during his dictatorship, or if other parties could have plausibly threatened the democratically elected Islamist government. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s ability to step away from the abyss of religious violence is a remarkable testament to the doggedness of its civil society and their commitment to dialogue.
This year’s literary laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, has also been recognized for threading her way through situations and dialogue that would exhaust most people’s mental and moral resources. The Belorussian journalist’s “polyphonic” treatment of her long investigations into the Chernobyl disaster and the war in Chechnya often presents long personal testimonies without authorial intervention.
Her determined progress through unbearably depressing and challenging material has earned her a coveted spot among a short list of nonfiction winners which includes philosopher Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill.
The London Review of Books aptly describes some of Alexievich’s work as “unreadably sad.” It deals unremittingly with the consequences of manmade disasters on thousands of unknown people, stories that too often escape mention in the broadcast media and, consequently, the notice of the wider world.
She describes her own work as an account of the “little man versus the great utopia … the disappearance of this utopia and how it affects the common person.” The relevance of this line of inquiry to so many political crises, including the unravelling of the Arab Spring, is self-evident.
Not only does Alexievich’s prize redress the critical neglect of the golden age of nonfiction – which, recently, has consistently outperformed literary fiction – it implicitly acknowledges that the great themes of our age often receive their fullest and most incisive analysis within newspapers, journals and magazines. Creative nonfiction has become a literary genre in its own right and its formal recognition is long overdue.
Those who resist the idea that unstinting attention to individual voices can produce literary and diplomatic breakthroughs should consider Alexievich’s statement about her search for a genre that would “convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life,” until her creative mix of literary techniques and reportage produced a hybrid form that allowed “human voices to speak for themselves.”

Editorial from Guyana Stabroek News