Monday

21st Jun 2021

First-ever European literary prize awarded

The first-ever European literary award, an attempt to match the prestige of the Booker Prize, the Prix Goncourt or America's National Book Award, was handed out on Monday (28 September) night in a glittering ceremony in the European capital.

The EU pageant of prose at the Flagey Theatre in Brussels was attended by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, culture commissioner Jan Figel, his Swedish national counterpart, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, 800 notables from the European cultural scene and the award's patron, best-selling Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell.

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  • Twelve books from different European countries won this year (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

But rather than a single gong, as is common with other literary trophies, the EU Prize for Literature was awarded to authors from 12 different countries - and will be awarded to another 11 next year from the countries that did not win in 2009, and another 11 in 2011, for a total of 34 prizes over a three-year cycle.

This is to ensure, like an elementary school sports day where every child wins a medal, that each country that participates in the EU's culture programme - both within the EU and beyond - gets to have a winner.

The organisers of the prize - a €5,000 cheque for each recipient - underscored that in contrast to existing book awards, the EU commendation was intended to "highlight and promote the full diversity of European literature."

"The rationale of the prize is to cross borders, to celebrate european diversity," President Barroso told the assembled authors and book sector poobahs.

"The sad truth today is that in Europe too little fiction crosses borders and we believe that the award shall encourage young talents," he added.

"In the last five years, we have shown that we put culture as a priority in Europe. Europe is about emotion - not only the market - and this prize tries to translate this idea."

Mr Mankell saluted the authors, but argued that to launch a European book award that is followed as closely as the Booker or the Goncourt, eventually, the laurels needed to be substantially pruned.

"Handing out a dozen or 34 prizes over three years is acceptable only for the first years. It makes no sense; it lessens its value," he told EUobserver.

"You cannot continue to have 12 prizes every year. Instead there should be just one or two prizes," he continued. "I don't honestly know how impressive it is. I think it is that Europe has a responsibility to do this sort of thing. This is the minimum of what has to be done. It's a small step."

He said that for the European Union to survive, the institutions must put much greater emphasis on support for cultural works.

"This is a perhaps a philosophical idea, but Europe must begin to really engage in the area of culture, which is so central. If it doesn't, can we really say there is a union, can we do anything with this union?"

He also said that if the aim was also to encourage a greater readership of books from other European countries, there should be greater support for what he called "the many times invisible translator."

The translation of fiction has been hit hard by the economic crisis, as publishers are wary of publishing "expensive" books such as those that require the additional, extensive labour of transferring prose into another language.

"It would also be worthwhile to have a very serious prize for translation. It would be very wise for the EU do this."

The winners

From Austria, Paulus Hochgatterer won for The Sweetness of Life, a psychological thriller set in the Alps about a murder and a slew of animal killings, with references to the war and the growth of the far right.

From Croatia, twenty-one-year-old Mila Pavicevic's Ice Girl and Other Fairy Tales was honoured. She has also written published four collections of poems.

The Troglodyte Adolescents, by France's Emmanuelle Pagano, bagged one award for her tale of a boy who becomes a woman and returns to the village where she had grown up.

Winner Szécsi Noémi's Communist Monte Cristo, walked away with another for her a family saga that offers a panorama of the history of communist ideas in Hungary.

Ireland's Karen Gillece triumphed with her Longshore Drift, a love story and a story of loss, about a free-spirited woman who loses her son in a Brazilian market.

Daniele Del Giudice's Movable Horizon retraces the notebooks of Antarctic expeditions in the novel that won for Italy.

Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, born in 1976 in Vilnius, Lithuania, scooped a prize for Breathing Into Marble, her fourth book and first novel, about a young mother named Isabelle who adopts a six-year-old boy who kills his brother.

Encirclement, by Carl Frode Tiller, has already won the Norwegian Critics' Prize, the Brage Prize and was nominated for the Nordic Council Award. In it, a man who cannot remember who he is places a notice in the newspaper to encourage acquaintances and friends to write him letters so he can start remembering.

Polish science-fiction writer Jacek Dukaj snagged his award for his crafting of an alternate universe in which the First World War never happened, Poland is still under Russian rule and an unknown form of ice has spread across much of the Eurasian continent.

From Portugal, Dulce Maria Cardoso's Os Meus Sentimentos recounts the horrors of everyday life of a woman who sells cosmetics to housewives, and whose daughter works in a supermarket.

Slovakia's Pavol Rankov won for It Happened on 1 September (or whenever), which stretches from 1938 to 1968 and tells the tale of three friends who respectively consider themselves to be Czech, Hungarian and Jewish and who become rivals in war.

Helena Henschen, of Sweden, secured her prize for her debut novel, The Shadow of a Crime. The book is based on a true story, the 'von Sydow murders,' in which Ms Henschen's mother lost her entire family at the age of 15.

Next year, awards will be given to authors from Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia and Spain, and in 2011 to writers, from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Serbia, the Netherlands, Turkey and the UK.

President Barroso has not read any of the novels, according to a spokesperson, however he is looking forward to Mr Del Giudice's book and that of Ms Cardoso.

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