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Mystery Swirls on Literature Nobel

October 3, 1997

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) _ When it comes to predicting who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a lot of the reading is between the lines _ with genre, gender and geography figuring into the guessing at least as much as talent.

The omens for this year’s literature award, as always, are tantalizingly murky. But there is one assumption that is broadly held throughout the literary world: the winner announced later this month won’t be a poet.

The Swedish Academy starts announcing the slate of awards Monday with the Nobel in medicine, wrapping up its set schedule of announcements Oct. 15 with the award for chemistry.

Of all the Nobel prizes, the literature award has always been draped in the most mystery. Even the date of the announcement is kept a secret until the last minute. Only one thing is known: It will be awarded on a Thursday in October.

Also steeped in an unusual amount of secrecy _ even by Nobel standards _ is how the members of the Swedish Academy choose the winner. The Academy insists that artists’ genre, nationality and gender play no role, but few believe them.

So when critics speculate on who’s going to win, they look not only at who’s eligible for the prize but who’s already received it. They assume the academy members strive for variety.

Under that reasoning, a poet is out of the question this year. Even last year, some thought a poet was an unlikely recipient, since Ireland’s Seamus Heaney had won the prize the year before. But the academy confounded the critics, awarding the 1996 prize to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.

After honoring European writers for two consecutive years, some think an author from another continent will take home the prize this year.

This would leave Jaan Kross of Estonia out of the running, fears Robert Winder of the British literary magazine Granta. Kross is not only a poet but a European.

Winder’s other favorite has only one strike against him. While Jose Saramago is from Portugal, he writes fiction. Another plus in his favor, Winder noted, is that he is ``getting on″ in years. The prize is not given posthumously.

Winder also considers V.S. Naipaul of Trinidad and Britain’s Doris Lessing strong candidates. Both are Nobel-calibre authors who have never taken home the prize.

Both Winder and Pierre Assouline, director of the French literary magazine Lire, mention Albanian exile novelist Ismail Kadare, whose accounts of that impoverished and isolated corner of Europe often verge on magical-realism.

Albania’s prominence in the news as it descended into chaos earlier this year also could attract academy members’ sympathy, Winder said.

Assouline also mentioned French novelist Michel Tournier and poet Yves Bonnefoy as possible winners.

Unconvinced the academy will look beyond Europe, Haakan Jaensson, cultural editor of the Stockholm daily Aftonbladet, thought Antunes, Saramago and Belgium’s Hugo Claus were front-runners.

But he said Naipaul is a personal favorite, calling him a ``world writer″ who is at home anywhere and read everywhere.

Other names that critics cite frequently are Bei Dao of China, J.M. Coetzee from South Africa, Antonio Lobo Antunes from Portugal and John Updike of the United States.

Jaensson also noted that the world’s most prestigious literary award is sometimes a double-edged honor.

``Sometimes it affects them (so) they can’t write anything further. They have a hard time,″ he said.

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