Martel's Booker win confirmed

The 39-year-old, who was born in Spain and lives in Montreal, Canada, charmed the judges with his Life of Pi — a magical realist tale of a boy who survives adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg and a bad-tempered Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Ironically, after the furore that followed Booker judge David Baddiel’s rant against dull and weighty tomes, the book is probably the most quirky and populist to have won the prize since Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993.

But the decision, after 70 minutes of ‘heated debate”, was not unanimous, with Martel emerging as winner on a four-to-one vote apparently over Rohinton Mistry’s Bombay saga, Family Matters. Lisa Jardine, the chairperson of the judges, insisted the website fiasco had been an honest error, even though it prompted bookmakers William Hill to close its books on the contest after Martel became the unlikely evens favourite with the veteran Irish writer William Trevor.

The win is a boon for Martel’s tiny publishers, Canongate, who already have an international hit on their hands with Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.

Critics have described Life of Pi, a winsome and eccentric cross between an adventure story and a religious meditation, as ‘hilarious” and full of ‘grand originality”.
Jardine said the judges were similarly enthralled. ‘It is, as the author says, a novel which will make you believe in God — or ask yourself why you don’t.”

Virtually unknown outside Canada, Martel had feared that the website blunder had scuppered his chances. This year’s prize was supposed to be a new beginning, the start of a more transparent era, when the headlines would be made by the books and not the bitching. But this being the Booker, old habits — and axes — grind on.

Baddiel bemoaned the preponderance of ‘pompous, portentous and pretentious fiction”.

The critic Erica Wagner was the first to distance herself, extolling the virtues of the ‘longer, denser read ... after all it is a prize for literature”.

Jardine was not far behind as the the titans of literary London sank their claws into Baddiel, a comedian, author of two not terribly well received novels, and proud possessor of one of Charles Dickens’s business cards. That was the nearest he would ever get to literary greatness, one acid wag commented.

Another controversy erupted when Martyn Goff, the 79-year-old Svengali who has orchestrated the Booker circus for the past 33 years, suggested the door might be opened to Americans entering for the Booker. It has hitherto been confined to British and Commonwealth authors.

Jardine said it would be ‘absolutely silly to extend the prize to Americans ... It is not as if they are not well taken care of already. To win the Pulitzer I believe you not only have to live there but your book has to be written on a subject concerned with the United States. The America thing is a non-runner.”

There was also a rift between Jardine and the chair of the Man Booker steering group, Jonathan Taylor, over the number of books the judges are expected to read. This year they laboured through 130. —

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