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Salman Rushdie named best of the Booker bunch

Salman Rushdie is probably the Booker Prize’s best-known winner. Now he is officially the best.

Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children was named on Thursday as the greatest winner to date of Britain’s most prestigious literary award. The book received more than a third of the 7 801 votes cast in a competition to mark the prize’s 40th anniversary.

The book beat five other finalists, including Pat Barker’s World War I novel The Ghost Road and South African writer JM Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Rushdie, who is promoting his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, in the United States, said in a videotaped message that he was “absolutely delighted” with the accolade.

The Indian-born British writer had been strong favourite for the “Best of the Booker” award. Midnight’s Children won a similar contest held in 1993 to mark the Booker’s 25th anniversary.

“It’s a book which always appears on polls of people’s favourite books, so it’s no surprise to see it win,” said Jonathan Ruppin, promotions manager of the Foyles bookstore chain. “He’s not to everyone’s taste, but from a bookseller’s point of view, authors who get books into the news are always welcome.”

The 41 Booker winners were winnowed down to six finalists by a panel of three judges that included a biographer, a broadcaster and an English professor. The public was then asked to vote online or by SMS.

The other finalists were Australian novelist Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist and — the outsider — The Siege of Krishnapur by the late JG Farrell.

Born in Mumbai in 1947 and educated in England, Rushdie shot to literary fame with Midnight’s Children, a magic-realist saga that weaves the story of a narrator, born at the moment of India’s independence in 1947, with the subcontinent’s modern history.

His 1988 novel The Satanic Verses angered many in the Muslim world and brought a death sentence for blasphemy from Iran’s then leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Rushdie lived in hiding for a decade until the Iranian government distanced itself from the order in 1998, saying it would not back any effort to kill Rushdie. He has since gradually returned to public life, and spends much of his time in New York.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II last year and received the honour at Buckingham Palace last month.

The prize is formally known as the Man Booker after its sponsor, financial services conglomerate Man Group plc. It was first handed out in 1969 and is open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. There have been 41 winners because there were joint champions in 1974 and 1992.

Winners receive £50 000 and a burst of publicity that usually brings a surge in sales. — Sapa-AP

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