On Sunday, Canadian author Michael Ondaatje won the Golden Man Booker Prize, recognizing the best Booker winner of the past 50 years, as determined by an online vote after a panel of judges chose contenders from each decade the prize has been awarded. Below is the speech he delivered at Royal Festival Hall in London.
Not for a second do I believe this is the best or most popular book on this list, or any other list that could have been put together of Booker novels. Especially when placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul – one of the masters of our time, or a major novel such as Wolf Hall, or Penelope Lively’s beautiful Moon Tiger, or the heart-breaking Lincoln in the Bardo.
I’ve not read The English Patient since it came out in 1992 and I suspect, and know more than any one, that it remains cloudy with errors and pacing. And at the back of my mind I keep recalling one of my favourite remarks, that Erik Satie made when asked about the fact that Ravel had turned down the Legion of Honour: “It’s not enough to have refused the Legion D’honneur. The important thing is not to have deserved it in the first place.”
But especially now, tonight, it is important to admit that there are great authors and great books that never received the Booker Prize – those wondrous fictions by William Trevor (nominated twice), Barbara Pym, Alice Munro; or specifically, among my favourites, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, Waterland by Graham Swift and The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon.
I wish, in fact, that those of us on this Man Booker list had been invited to propose and speak about what we felt were the overlooked classics – in order to enlarge what ought to be read, as opposed to relying on the usual suspects.
I want to thank Bloomsbury in England, McClelland and Stewart in Canada, and Knopf in the States, who published this novel. And also small presses everywhere – they were the first to publish me. Thank you to Ellen Seligman, who died two years ago, who was my editor on this book. And to the Dennys family – who first told me about a man in the desert named Almazy. And finally, to my friend Anthony Minghella, who is no longer with us, who I suspect probably had something to do with the result of this vote.