The Swedish Academy might have made a bold political statement in awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.
It could have honored any of several South African writers who witnessed the wounds of apartheid and anticipated this year of change in their country. It might have acknowledged the role in saving the human spirit played by writers in Czechoslovakia and East Germany and even Russia. It might have stood up for the freedom to think and write everywhere in the world by championing the still-young Indo-British novelist, Salman Rushdie, who lives in secrecy because of his death sentence by a dead religious leader of Iran which no one there has dared to rescind.
It might well have honored a woman in this year when women notably bear arms as well as manuscripts and babies.
But the Swedish Academy has done none of these things. Its Nobel Prize to Octavio Paz is in many senses safe. It infuriates no one (except his Mexican critics). It is widely acknowledged as deserved. It honors the rich artistry of Mexico and the many levels of vigor in South American letters. It goes to a poet who has written poems about poetry, not to mention about love, the soul of his nation and other important matters.
This is the second Spanish-language winner in as many years but the first Latin American since 1982. Mr. Paz is well known in this country for his books in translation, for reviews and literary articles and for teaching. He is 76 and has just been awarded $700,000 to keep writing, which he would have done for free. The Nobel Prize in Literature this year was for literature. And it made an important statement, one that many Americans including perhaps some professors of humanities had stopped believing: Poetry lives.