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Top 4 candidates for 2011's Nobel Prize in Literature

Husna HaqThe Christian Science Monitor

The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature – one of the highest awards a writer can receive – will be announced on Thursday. All across the world, literati are preparing for the big event in a decidedly plebeian way. They’re betting on the frontrunners. British bookmaker Ladbrokes has ranked the contenders’ odds, according to bets it is accepting online from “clued up literary fans.” Here’s a somewhat surprising look at the top four contenders.

#4 Tomas Transtromer: odds are10/1

One of Sweden’s foremost poets, the 80-year-old Transtromer is known for his subtle, multi-faceted poetry that typically explores man’s relationship with nature, and reveals mystical insights into the human mind, a result of his training in psychology. Thanks largely to the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, interest in Swedish writing has skyrocketed in recent years, bringing the spotlight squarely on Mr. Transtromer.

"Transtromer is the person who stands head and shoulders above anyone else," said Neil Astley, founding editor at Transtromer's publishers Bloodaxe Books in Britain, a recent Reuters article. Indeed, his odds place Transtromer above other well-known writers including Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, and Cormac McCarthy.

#3 Haruki Murakami: odds are 8/1

Only two Japanese writers have won the Nobel Prize in literature in the prestigious award’s history, Kenzaburo Oe in 1994, and Yasunari Kawabata in 1968. Mr. Murakami’s novels often feature defiant protagonists who run against the orderly, group mentality predominant in Japanese culture, like “1Q84,” his epic trilogy that sold four million copies in Japan in the last two years (the English translation is set to release Oct. 25). Like his protagonists, Murakami is a vocal critic of Japanese policy, particularly its reliance on nuclear power. In a speech for another literary award, the International Catalunya Prize, the novelist said the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor was “a mistake committed by our very own hands.”

The Nobel recipient is often as much a political statement as it is a literary one, and Murakami’s controversial stance on nuclear power won’t go unnoticed by the judges.

#2 Adonis: odds are 6/1

His real name is Ali Ahmad Said Asbar and this 81-year-old Syrian poet, though currently No. 2 on Ladbroke’s list, is the most favored contender. As the story goes, the poet recited a poem for the then-president of Syria when he was just 17, and has been writing ever since. When publications rejected submissions under his name, he chose a pseudonym he still uses today: Adonis. Described as dense and playful, Adonis’s writing has been compared to that of Walt Whitman, “if only Whitman had spent more time in airports,” and his poetry seems to fuse, effortlessly, East and West. He is, writes The New York Times, “as apt to cite Jim Morrison as the Sufi mystics.”

He’s a favorite for several reasons. For starters, he is a poet, a medium thought to be “underrepresented among Nobelists lately,” according to a recent New York Times article. Secondly, he writes in Arabic, an underrepresented language (only one other Nobel winner wrote in Arabic, Naguib Mahfouz). Perhaps most important, his poetry and his outspokenness – the Huffington Post calls him “an equal-opportunity critic, encouraging revolution while lamenting the death of Arabic culture” – coincide perfectly with the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

The Nobel committee loves socially minded altruists and Adonis, who was once imprisoned for his membership in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and is now a vocal observer of the Arab Spring, may be their man.

#1 Bob Dylan: odds are 5/1

That’s right, the surprise dark horse in the Nobel race is the iconic American singer-songwriter, musician, and poet. Dylan surged to first place in Ladbroke’s ranking in a 24-hour-period, when his 100/1 odds became 10/1 and now 5/1. Ladbrokes recently issued a press release establishing him as the firm favorite after 80 percent of bets accepted in the last 12 hours were placed on him.

Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes said: "Everything now points to Dylan taking the prize. At first we had him down as a rank outsider but the committee has been known to spring a shock and punters the world over feel Dylan will be the beneficiary."

Surprise? Maybe, but Dylan has a lot to recommend him. As well as being a respected songwriter with known for his politically-acute lyrics, Dylan has published several books including “Chronicles Volume One,” “Tarantula,” and “Lyrics: 1962-2001.” Several of his early counterculture songs including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,” became anthems for anti-war and civil rights movements in the US. And Dylan is an incredibly versatile musician, embracing in his 50-year career, folk, blues, country, rock and roll, gospel, jazz, and even swing, as well as incorporating political, literary, social, and philosophical themes in his lyrics.

Ladbrokes told The Guardian it would have "a significant five-figure payout" on its hands if Dylan wins the Nobel. "We've seen enough activity from the right people to suggest Dylan now has a huge chance this year. If he doesn't make the shortlist at least there will be some seriously burnt fingers," said spokesman Alex Donohue. "As Dylan said, money doesn't talk, it swears. If he does the business there might be a few expletives from us as well."

Incidentally, the Nobel ceremony takes place this Thursday, Oct. 6, the same day Dylan starts his UK and Ireland tour. A Nobel win just might be the best opening act ever.

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