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The International Booker Prize goes back to nature

The International Booker Prize goes back to nature

In a first for the International Booker Prize – or indeed any major book prize – the announcement of The Discomfort of Evening written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated by Michele Hutchison came from a London back garden. The chatelaine of a handsome patch of nature (and overlooking glass bedecked garden room, for those who take note of such things) was Razia Iqbal. The experienced arts journalist was compère for the livestreamed evening and, standing behind a Perspex lectern that she just happened to have at hand, she – and a rather curious garden robin – introduced assorted other contributors, including the new chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, Mark Damazer. Spare a thought for poor Sir Mark: when he first accepted the post he no doubt thought he would be joining this celebration and that for The Booker Prize at bells-and-whistles celebrations in hallowed London venues with a glass of champagne in his hand and the literary great and good in attendance. Instead, he found himself speaking to a camera from the leafy glade at the back of his house.

Damazer, in a nifty striped tie, pointed out that: “The International Booker is a vivid reminder of the obvious, that storytelling is not a gift of any one language, nor any one culture, nor for that matter any one way of experiencing the world.” And he went on to warn of the danger that the universality of English as a language meant that too many of us are blind to the merits and subtleties of foreign languages – “too thin an understanding on the non-Anglophone world – as he put it, displaying his own linguistic chops. The International Booker Prize “is a counterweight to that danger”.

Fiammetta Rocco, fabled administrator of the International Booker Prize, almost stole the show with a fabulous floral-inspired necklace (her chic nod to the outdoor theme). It fell to her to salute the booksellers and publishers who had carried on in the face of Covid-19 and got books into the hands of the reading public. She pointed out, too, that the judges had finalised their shortlist way back in April and that the four-month gap between shortlist announcement and winner announcement was unprecedented in the history of any of the Booker Prizes. The usual gap is around a month.

Meanwhile, Ted Hodgkinson, chair of the judges, commented that what this year’s shortlist did above all was return the reader “with a renewed sense of wonder at the strange and shimmering lot of humanity”. It was perhaps the most poignant part of the evening when he announced Rijneveld and Hutchison as the winners and instead of the whoops, cheers and raucous applause that usually greets the new champs there was no sound to meet their triumph. Not that writer and translator seemed to notice: their delight when Hodgkinson beamed in to tell them the happy news was palpable. Indeed, the wordsmiths were lost for words – a “Wow” and “That’s great” were pretty much all they could initially manage. Rijneveld themself put the sense of shock succinctly: “We are very surprised.”

They went on to expand, in imagery that has never previously graced a Booker Prize winner’s speech, that “I can only say that I am as proud as a cow with seven udders!” (Rijneveld, born to a farming family, still looks after a herd of cows one day a week). The author went on to explain that they had written two words that they pinned above their desk while writing The Discomfort of Evening: “be relentless”. “So read, write, win, lose, love each other, but be relentless in this.”

Michele Hutchison made a further point as to why literature in translation is ever more important. Since we can no longer travel in person the way we used to, she said, “we should travel by reading books”.  

It was left to Hodgkinson to draw things to a close. As he clutched the winners’ trophies, about to be delivered to Rijneveld and Hutchison and their waiting mantelpieces, he gave a final tribute to The Discomfort of Evening. He was, he said, “envious” of anyone yet to read it.

The winner announcement in full, and the comments from the prize administrators, judges, author and translator, can be found on the Booker Prizes website and its YouTube channel and on Facebook.