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Happiness is a Man Booker International win

Happiness is a Man Booker International win

As she picked up her Man Booker International Prize on Tuesday evening for Flights, Olga Tokarczuk reflected on the change of circumstances in her life, a journey worthy of her novel's title. “The first time I was in London was when I worked as a chambermaid in a posh hotel,” she recalled (though it surely can't have been as swanky as the magnificent room in the V&A museum where the award ceremony was held, replete with seven huge Raphael paintings). “Now I'm back as a Man Booker International winner.” She went on to say that, although being the first Polish winner of the prize, “I don't believe in national literatures.” Books are not representatives of a country but each is “a live being that pops up”. She gave heartfelt thanks to her translator Jennifer Croft for turning the book into English “in such a beautiful and fragile way” before concluding her short but very sweet speech with the simplest and most affecting of observations: “I'm very happy.” And rarely has the word “happy” sounded happier.

Reaction to her win illustrates why the Man Booker International matters. The award was given widespread international coverage, from Europe to America, India to Israel, but very few of the reports did much more than comment on the importance of the prize, the nationality of the winner and give a brief hint as to what Flights is about. There was almost no evidence that the book had actually been read. Now that Tokarczuk and Flights are in the limelight the idea of the MBI is to make sure that changes.

Tokarczuk's win came before the news of the death of Philip Roth. Roth, of course, won the MBI in 2011 when the prize was still awarded for a body of work rather than a single book. Sometimes award ceremonies can feel flat when the winner isn't there in person but the atmosphere in the Banqueting House that evening was rapt. Roth appeared in a video link and said that “One of the particular pleasures I've had as a writer is to have my work read internationally, despite all the heartaches of translation that that entails.” He went on to say that “This is a great honour and I'm delighted to receive it.” His real hope though was that “the prize will bring me to the attention of readers around the world who are not familiar with my work”.

Roth's win was also the occasion of a legendary Man Booker huff (if books genuinely matter then all prizes should have them) when one of the judges, Carmen Callil, disagreed with her fellow arbiters Rick Gekoski and Justin Cartwright so vehemently that she withdrew from the panel. Roth, she said, “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book”, before adding, somewhat unfortunately, “It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe.” She also asked: “In 20 years' time will anyone read him?” It is, of course, too soon to say but seven years down the line and they most certainly are and the reaction to his death suggests that it was Messrs Gekoski and Cartwright who got it spot on.

No sooner has one prize been settled than the next kicks into action. The Golden Man Booker – the prize to celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker – opens to the public vote (26 May). Five judges have each been given a decade and tasked with choosing their favourite Man Booker winner from it: Robert McCrum (1970s), Kamila Shamsie (1980s), Lemn Sissay (1990s), Simon Mayo (2000s), Holly McNish (2010s). The shortlist of five is then handed over to the public who have until 25 June to chose the best of the best (cast your vote here). The winner will be announced at the Man Booker 50 Festival on London's South Bank on 8 July. It is not going to be an easy choice – 51 books down to five down to one. The favourite, as a recent article in the Guardian pointed out, is Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, not least because it has already won the 26th anniversary Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the 40th anniversary Best of the Booker in 2008. But the competition is formidable: Tom Keneally's Schindler's Ark (1982) versus Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999) versus Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2002), and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) against everyone.