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A Horse Walks into the winner's enclosure

A Horse Walks into the winner's enclosure

At prize ceremonies it's the little things that stand out and this was true when the Man Booker International Prize was awarded to David Grossman at a celebratory dinner on Wednesday. In the grandest of grand settings – the Raphael Cartoon room at the Victoria & Albert Museum – the chair of judges, Nick Barley, gave a perfectly judged speech joshing the Man Booker International as ‘the Man Booker regional prize’. He stressed how it ‘invests heavily in the judges’ to ensure the best books are selected and he thanked too Boyd Tonkin, the eminence grise behind the prize, describing him as ‘the godfather of foreign fiction in Britain’. He then went on to talk about ‘the bond of friendship and trust’ that must exist between writer and translator and how translators are also ‘the scouts out there in the world, finding the books and bringing them back to the agents and publishers’.


It was a nice and revealing touch when David Grossman went up to receive his winner's award that, like a true gent, he gestured for his translator Jessica Cohen to precede him on to the stage.


In his speech, Grossman deflected Barley's praise that his winning book, A Horse Walks into a Bar, is a ‘courageous high-wire act in which the author never puts a foot wrong’ by doing a camp Dick Emery ‘Ooooh you are awful’ hand gesture and complaining that he'd developed an inflamed wrist while making the gesture and proclaiming ‘Ach, there's no chance’ (of winning). He endowed his editor at Jonathan Cape, Dan Franklin, with the highest form of all Jewish praise – he is, said Grossman, ‘a mensch’. He praised too, from the heart, his fellow shortlistee Amos Oz as simply ‘my friend and teacher’. And he saved his last words of thanks for his main character, the flawed comedian Dovaleh G. ‘It was such a pleasure to write this character. Like a rider in a rodeo, you don't know when he will throw you off.’


The shortlisting of two Israeli writers, said Grossman, was nothing less than ‘a sign of honour to our language, which is a very insular language. And yet, since it was dormant for something like 1,800 years, it is such a phenomenon that in the last 120 years Hebrew has been revitalised, awakened from its long sleep’. It is of course the likes of Grossman and Oz who have been acting as its alarm clocks.


When she spoke, Jessica Cohen praised Grossman above all for ‘the relentless way he searches for the right words to say the right things’. She also stressed how the Man Booker International is an exercise in bringing down barriers and in the same spirit donated half her £25,000 prize money to a foundation that promotes Israeli-Palestinian amity.


Spare a thought for Misha Hoekstra, translator of Dorthe Nors's shortlisted Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. At the end of the dinner the super-efficient waiting staff went round clearing the tables and one of the items they cleared up was Hoekstra's prize cheque as a shortlisted translator. Hoekstra returned to his table after congratulating the winners to find that he was £1,000 worse off. This column is awaiting confirmation that the cheque was traced but is confident that should it have been recycled a replacement will quickly be forthcoming.


All eyes are now on how A Horse Walks into a Bar performs having been given the Man Booker International seal of approval. Last years winner was the Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang and since 2016, sales of translated Korean fiction have increased by 400% in the UK.