For the first time in its 24-year history, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been won by an Arab writer, Hassan Blasim, for his second short story collection, The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press. This is also the first time a short story collection has been victorious.
Blasim and Wright share the £10,000 prize, which they received at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London this evening, May 22nd.
The Iraqi Christ combines reportage, memoir and dark fantasy to present Iraq, post-Saddam and postinvasion, as a surrealist inferno. From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim's stories blend the fantastic with the everyday. The Iraqi Christ offers an unforgettable and often harrowing insight into life in contemporary Iraq.
Blasim, described as "perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive" (The Guardian), also won an English PEN translation award for The Iraqi Christ. He has much from his own life experience to draw from. He originally made films in his native Iraq, having to adopt a pseudonym and leave Baghdad for Kurdistan in northern Iraq to avoid persecution. In 2000 he fled Iraq completely, travelling as an illegal migrant for four years through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia before finally settling in Finland with the help of a friend.
The Iraqi Christ is yet to be published in its original Arabic. Blasim's previous book, The Madman of Freedom Square, which was longlisted for this prize in 2010, was published in a censored version in Arabic three years after its original publication in English by Manchester-based independent publisher Comma Press – but even then this was quickly banned in Jordan and many other Arab countries.
Jonathan Wright, translator of The Iraqi Christ, studied Arabic at Oxford University and has spent 18 of the past 32 years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. In 2014 he was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation for Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.
The judges gave a special mention to The Mussel Feast, the debut novel by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by fellow independent Peirene Press. This modern German classic first appeared in 1990 but is now published in English for the first time. Set around a family dinner, The Mussel Feast lifts the lid on the trauma and pain that the second World War left on ordinary German families.
Blasim and Wright will be appearing in conversation with judge Boyd Tonkin at the Hay Festival this Saturday, May 24th.
Tonkin said of the winner: "A decade after the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, that country's writers are exploring the brutal and chaotic aftermath of war and tyranny with ever-growing confidence. Among them, Hassan Blasim stands out for his fearless candour and rule-busting artistry. The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ, often surreal in style but always rooted in heart-breaking truth, depict this pitiless era with deep compassion, pitch-black humour and a visionary yearning for another, better life. Jonathan Wright's translation from the Arabic captures all of their passion, their desperation and their soaring imaginative energy. The Iraqi Christ is not only the first Arabic book to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but a classic work of postwar witness, mourning and revolt."
Previous winners of the prize include Milan Kundera in 1991 for Immortality, translated by Peter Kussi; W G Sebald and translator Anthea Bell in 2002 for Austerlitz; and Per Petterson and translator Anne Born in 2006 for Out Stealing Horses. The 2013 winner was Gerbrand Bakker for The Detour translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.
The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is awarded annually to the best work of contemporary fiction by a living author which has been translated into English and published in the United Kingdom in 2013.