Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dutch Gardener Snares Literary Prize

A "restrained, sparely written" debut novel by a Dutch author and part-time gardener has beaten Marilynne Robinson's Orange prize-winning Home and Joseph O'Neill's Booker-longlisted Netherland to win the world's richest prize for a single literary work, the International Impac Dublin literary award.

Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin, in which protagonist Helmer is forced to return to his family's small farm in the bleak Dutch countryside after his twin brother dies in a car accident, was named winner of the €100,000 Impac prize in Dublin recently. The award is unique in that public libraries around the world nominate titles they think should win. The Twin was proposed by libraries in Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, and Eindhoven, after which an international judging panel selected the winner, this year from a shortlist of eight.

In Dublin to receive his prize, Bakker said he "had to lie down for a while" after hearing that he'd won the award. "It's wonderful," he said. "But for me it was also wonderful to read the book in English. I said to David [Colmer] the translator: 'Who wrote this book?' I didn't recognize it, I thought it was very good. It made me realize it really is a book, and I am a writer." The award money will be divided between Bakker and Colmer.

Acclaimed English author Anne Fine sat on this year's judging panel, which commented that the book "convinces from first page to last.

"Though rich in detail, it's a sparely written story, with the narrator's odd small cruelties, laconic humor, and surprising tendernesses emerging through a steady, well-paced, unaffected style," said the judges. "With quiet mastery the story draws in the reader. The writing is wonderful: restrained and clear, and studded with detail of farm rhythms in the cold, damp Dutch countryside."

The Twin is the third debut novel in a row to win the Impac, following Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down last year, and Rawi Hage's De Niro's Game in 2008. The idea for the book came to Bakker on a holiday in Corsica in 2002. Hiking through the mountains, he had the idea of a son "who was going to do something terrible to his father."

Bakker became a licensed gardener in 2006 and also works during the winter as a skating instructor, but says that these days he makes enough money to be a full-time writer, although he doubts that he'll ever give up gardening. "In the autumn when I rake the dead leaves I can do it for hours – once I even disturbed a pile I'd made so I could go on raking. The sound is so wonderful: it lets you think in a subconscious way, in the back of your mind."

The International Impac Dublin literary award is organized by Dublin city libraries, and is open to novels written in any language, provided they have been published in English. This year 156 titles from 43 countries were put forward by 163 public libraries.


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