The last couple of weeks have been filled with excitement and thrill for lovers of literature across the world. Two of the biggest prizes in the field have been awarded within a week. On October 11, Austrian writer Peter Handke bagged the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was named the winner for 2018. On October 14, the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction was announced in London jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo, for their novels, The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other, respectively.
Both these prizes reflect profound historic and political significance. Bernadine Evaristo is the first black woman to win the Booker prize. It is also interesting to note that Olga Tokarczuk’s novels have been set in the backdrop of Polish government’s rightist dogma.
On close examination, it appears that the awards this year are not only in appreciation of the literary quality of the winners’ works, but also a handmaid’s tale of oppression, subordination, cynicism, political propaganda, and violent nationalism. These authors have provided articulation, in different forms and different contexts, to several of the miseries the world is facing today.
The political backdrops
In Poland, a narrative of history that embraces fragmentation, diversity, and intermingling is unavoidably political, disrupting a long-standing mythology of the country as a homogeneous Catholic nation. This national mythology has been in the ascendant in recent years, especially since 2015, when the socially conservative party Law and Justice came to power on an anti-immigration “national unity” platform. Since then, the government has refused to accept refugees from the West Asia and North Africa, resisted instituting equal rights for same-sex couples, and passed a law forbidding discussion of Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War.
Poland, not unlike the United States, is politically split down the middle. Law and Justice’s supporters are balanced by progressives – often younger, city-dwelling, and living in the western half of the country – who seek tolerance, multiculturalism, and a truthful reckoning with Poland’s past. These are Tokarczuk’s readers.
Awarding the Booker to Margaret Atwood is equally significant. She has been the voice of women’s subordination, oppression and subjugation. Her works are full of feminist hope. The Testaments paints a vivid portrait of female resistance, while its “prequel”, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a story of patriarchal extreme. No women are allowed to read, or to work, spend money, or drive. One of the most alarming aspects of Atwood’s dystopia is that society justifies sexist tyranny through feminist ideals. Gileadeans make all sorts of remarks about how their social structure protects women from rape and encourages respect for motherhood. Apparently, these were major feminist topics in the 1980s, when Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale.
Rising hyper-nationalism and toxic masculinity
Over the past few years the world has seen the exponential rise of nationalists spewing venom on religious, ethnic and cultural minority. With the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, the growing power of populist right-wing parties in Europe, and the consolidation of “strongmen” in countries such as China, the Philippines, Turkey and India, liberals around the world are struggling to respond to populist nationalism.
Today’s nationalists decry the “globalist” liberalism of international institutions. Far-right parties and authoritarian demagogues that have succeeded in gaining power at the national level – such as in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines, the United States, and, now, Brazil – have wasted no time undermining democratic institutions and norms. Unsurprisingly, according to V-Dem Institute’s 2018 liberal democracy index, these countries are among those that have seen the greatest democratic backslide in the past few years.
Once this degradation of democracy has been set in motion, it is a steep and slippery slope from illiberal democracy to outright authoritarianism. In India, too the situation is not so hopeful, with the discourse on nationalism having changed. Similarly, the #MeToo movement has exposed the viciousness of the oppression faced by females, and the sceptical attitude of the male community towards these horrifying experiences. Women across the globe have been at the receiving end of a backlash in the form of dismissals from job, defamation suits, and marginalisation.
Indeed, women are struggling with issues of sexual harassment at the workplace, dowry, domestic violence, rape and more across the globe. They suffer discrimination at every stage of life. Even in first world countries disparate wages, sexual harassment and disproportionate responsibility have resulted in thwarting women form taking part into all walks of social and economic life.
Give this backdrop, the choice of recipients – or, at least three of them – for these awards is highly significant and symbolic.
Two books, one story
The striking similarity in the concerns raised by three of these authors is that they are about groups at the receiving end of the social and political authoritarianism. In their works, minorities are targeted in the wake of hyper-nationalism, and women struggle to find a space where the specter of patriarchy doesn’t haunt them in a pervasive culture of toxic masculinity. If there is one message being delivered by these literary works, it is that we are becoming more intolerant and violent towards the minorities and the powerless.
If literature, among other things, reveals a blueprint of society, the works of the winning authors have provided glimpse of how morbid humans can be when propaganda rules over them. In this context these literature gives hope to those who still believe in the liberal order, but at the same rings an alarm bell for them. Literature equips mankind with courage and integrity to fight injustice. The choice of these authors must be praised in the present context, but it must be kept in mind that until and unless an effort is made towards fighting the issues they raise, a story will remain but a collection of words.
The message behind these awards, then? Resist, or be ready to face more gruesome and grotesque outcomes than even these works have depicted.