France's David Diop wins International Booker with WWI novel

French novelist David Diop on Wednesday won the prestigious International Booker Prize for books translated into English with his World War I-set novel, “At Night All Blood is Black”.

The Paris-born writer became the first French winner of the prize, awarded for a book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, in a ceremony broadcast online from Coventry Cathedral in central England.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, chair of the judges, said “this story of warfare and love and madness has a terrifying power”.

“We judges agreed that its incantatory prose and dark, brilliant vision had jangled our emotions and blown our minds,” she said, adding “it had cast a spell on us”.

“I’m extremely happy to have won this prize,” Diop told AFP in an interview in his native French.

“It’s very interesting and gratifying for me. This really shows that literature has no borders.”

The book’s translator Anna Moschovakis won half the £50,000 ($70,850) prize, which recognises the major role of translators.

“It’s taken me by surprise,” she told AFP. “I’m so thrilled about how this will even further increase the number of people who encounter this book, which I feel so fortunate to have been able to translate.”

“A translation is neither one nor two people’s work, but sort of a collaboration between an author, a translator and the book, which I think is always very exciting,” she said.

Diop’s novel tells the story of two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France in the trenches of World War I. When one, Mademba, is killed, the other, Alfa, descends into ever greater violence and madness.

Diop, who was brought up in Senegal, was inspired by the fact that his Senegalese great-grandfather fought in the war but never spoke about his experiences.

The book was first published in 2018 with the French title “Frere d’ame” (literally soul brother), a play on words, as it sounds like “Frere d’armes” or brother-in-arms.

Moschovakis said this was a “beautiful pun” but she opted to change the title in English because it “would be impossible to actually translate”.

The book’s London-based publisher Pushkin Press tweeted: “Impossibly proud of David Diop and his translator Anna Moschovakis.”

The International Booker Prize, formerly known as the Man Booker International Prize, has been awarded since 2005, when it was won by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. 

It is a sister prize to the Booker Prize, awarded to a novel written in English.

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