This week's Sunday Guardian column.
Feverish speculation has broken out over the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature and Ladbrokes have already set the odds, listing the usual and unusual suspects. Well, to the Roths, Murakamis and Cetebooms of this world, I say: pooh, pfft and pshaw. My nomination for the laurel is one that few have heard of and yet is the most deserving of the lot. On the appointed date in Stockholm, the person who steps up to the podium ought to be none other than Hansel Hochstapler.
Born in the Mitteleuropean state of Behroopia, which vanished after the convulsions of the Great War, Hochstapler began writing as a child, drawing up shopping lists for his parents. After these were proclaimed to be masterpieces of the genre, he moved on to other forms, especially corporate mission statements and, spectacularly, the minutes of an all-day meeting of the marketing department of the Behroopia Iron & Steel Company in which it was revealed for the first time that the state had no reserves of iron, not to mention steel.
Hochstapler was hounded out of his motherland when still in his twenties by angry shopkeepers demanding payment for provisions based on his shopping lists. Alone and destitute, he wandered all over Europe surveying the cataclysmic after-effects of a world at war, never ceasing to write about the dark side of humankind and the difficulty of finding a cappuccino with the right amount of foam. It was at this time that his sonnets devoted to deep-fried chicken caught the attention of an independent publisher on the Left Bank and first editions of these, in pale green binding covered by grease stains, are much sought after by bibliophiles.
He lives today in a room filled with recyclable fast-food wrappers off a dusty lane in a corner of a Parisian arrondisement, emerging from the back entrance on Sunday mornings to avoid the creditors who knock on the front door. What is thought of as his best work, a collection of short stories titled Why Whither Whence, was published in 2001; he writes in an obscure Pyrenean dialect, and none of his poems and tales has so far been translated into English. This, though, seems set to change: his old publisher, having moved from the Left Bank to the Right, has recently employed the services of a translator who has been endorsed by Hochstapler himself after he taught him to yodel.
About the influences on his writing, Hochstapler is reticent. He has sworn off interviews, as his last one two decades ago was a fractious encounter with a callow reporter that ended in Hochstapler tossing the contents of his coffee cup into the journalist’s face. “It is lucky that the cup contained nothing more than watered-down slivovitz,” the correspondent was to recall in his write-up of the meeting. “It was when I asked Hochstapler about the origins of some of his stories that he began to get aggressive,” the report continued, “especially his tale about a man being transformed into a beetle one morning after uneasy dreams, or the one about a character who sets out on horseback to tilt at windmills, imagining himself to be a knight-errant.”
As is well known, the reporter did manage to ask him whether there was an underlying theme or message in his work. Hochstapler drew himself up to his full height of 4’11”, and then sank down again on his overstuffed armchair. What he said next has long been debated in literary salons. According to the journalist, his tapes reveal the word, “floss”. Postmodern critics scoff at this, and maintain that what Hochstapler said, in his thick French accent, was: “Loss”. Whether Hochstapler wanted to impart a lesson on oral hygiene or on bereavement will go down as one of the burning literary questions of our age. Either way, it is time that this brave writer, who has fought so tirelessly against the forces of fascism and metabolism, finally gets his due.