Will the Nobel Prize for Literature Go to Kenya's Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o?

A flurry of activity on the British betting site Ladbrokes has people speculating on the chances of Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o winning this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.

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We qualify this post with the disclaimer that nobody will truly know who wins the Nobel Prize for Literature until the Swedish Academy announces the laureate one fine October morning (the secretive Swedes don't even reveal the date in advance). As such, what precedes the news is largely guesswork. The winner could be Philip Roth, finally. Or a Romanian neo-absurdist playwright you've never read. Or, heck, Snooki. The point is, nobody knows anything.

And yet. And yet.

Yesterday, the British website Ladbrokes released its annual Nobel odds, with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in the lead. The site's odds were parsed by the literary community all day, as they will be in the weeks to come. This morning, however, on what was only Day Two of Nobel Watch, observers noticed a curious event taking place on the site:

The writer in question is the Kenyan novelist, playwright and essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, acclaimed for works like the novel Wizard of the Crow and the memoir In the House of the Interpreter. Ngũgĩ's odds had been 50/1 before trading on his Nobel chances was suspended; when it was restored, the odds were 50/1 again. But the suspension may have nevertheless been telling, implying that Ngũgĩ is indeed one of the five finalists for the Nobel, if not the presumed winner.

That's because, as Ladbrokes press representative Alex Donohue explained to The Atlantic Wire, the site suspends betting only when there is "a sudden large bet or bets." Could there merely have been a surge of enthusiasm among fans of Ngũgĩ? Sure, but, as Donohue explained, such a show of enthusiasm for a writer's Nobel chances "doesn't usually happen this soon" in the process, with potentially a full month left until the announcement (last year, Chinese novelist Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel on Oct. 11).

But then, Donohue dropped a bombshell: one of the "decent bets" — we think "decent" is a British euphemism for "huge" — came "from a Swedish customer." That's obviously relevant because the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel, suggesting that someone with inside knowledge of its workings may have placed the bet. At the very least, it could imply that an insider knows that Ngũgĩ is a finalist.

Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon, who has an excellent analysis of his own, tells The Atlantic Wire, "He's been my top African candidate for the past couple of years, and I still rate him highly — wouldn't be surprised at all if he's a finalist, or wins it."

Indeed, Ngũgĩ seems to fit the Swedish Academy's bill in many respects, from his literary talents to his political engagement. In the 1960's, he renounced writing in English for his native Gikuyu, in what would become a longstanding battle against the legacy of colonialism. His first novel in that language, Devil on the Cross, was written from prison in toilet paper. He remains engaged in politics to this day, writing last spring for The New York Times on Kenya's struggle to achieve democracy.

After he failed to win the Nobel three years ago, The Guardian lamented that he had been passed over:

there is only one Ngugi, and other African writers with such political and commercial traction are few and far between. But if the Nobel committee had chosen to honour him this year it would have renewed the African literary community's belief in the possibility.

Were he to win, Ngũgĩ would be the first male African writer to win the Nobel since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Naguib Mahfouz won in 1988, but the Egyptian novelist's sensibilities are firmly placed within the Middle East. The last African writer to win the Nobel was J. M. Coetzee in 2003. He is South African but lives in Australia.

If this morning's surge in bets is a clue, then Ngũgĩ could soon be heading to Stockholm.

Top photo of Ngũgĩ by David Mbiyu via Wikimedia Commons

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.