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It was a Canadian conspiracy with a jubilant ending.

Last night, Canadian author Yann Martel was named the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for his novel Life of Pi, the story of a 16-year-old Indian boy cast adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a Bengal tiger as his shipmates.

Six hundred guests gathered in the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court of the British Museum for the prize announcement. Taking the stage in front of the British literary establishment, Mr. Martel cried "Ahhh," threw up his hands and exclaimed: "When this started, it felt like being in a plane and all the edges were shaking and the plane was crashing. Now it feels like I'm in the arms of a beautiful woman."

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It is the second win for a Canadian in three years. Margaret Atwood triumphed in 2000.

In an emotional speech, Mr. Martel thanked his Canadian friends and family in French.

And he thanked the Booker jury for choosing his novel as "the luckiest book" in the competition.

In a press conference held in the museum's reading room after the gala, the 39-year-old author appeared completely at ease and deliriously happy, periodically rubbing his face in disbelief. "Fantastic room," he said, staring up at the storied library's domed roof before fielding questions from the international press.

"I feel thrilled. Obviously this is a writer's dream and it really feels like winning the lottery. . . . What I'm most happy about is the fact that this will bring more readers to my book, and I don't care if they buy it. They can get it out of the library."

Citing Canada as "the greatest hotel on Earth," Mr. Martel praised his home country as a vast and culturally fertile nation where writers from all over the world settle and so often thrive.

He added that he's determined not to blow winning one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes out of proportion: "My feet are firmly on the ground," he said, looking as though he would levitate with delight at any moment.

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"Really, it's not about winning prizes. . . . Let's not kid ourselves, I'm not a rock star or a movie star."

Asked about his next project, Mr. Martel was surprisingly direct and composed in his answer. "For my next book, I thought I'd have look at a grim but oddly overlooked event called the Holocaust."

The 34-year-old literary prize, which was this year increased from 20,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds, was recently acquired by the British Man group, a financial services conglomerate. The sponsor changed the venue from the historic Guild Hall to the British Museum, and upped the attendance to 600 from 300 to 400.

The gala was a swish affair -- a far cry from the stodgy rubber-chicken dinners of years past. It began with champagne amid the museum's Egyptian obelisks, followed with a meal catered by star chef Gordon Ramsay.

Mr. Martel was born in Spain in 1963. Writing and travelling are in his genes. His father, Émile, is an acclaimed Québécois poet and his mother, Nicole, is a translator. The family moved all over the world while Mr. Martel was growing up because his father was a diplomat.

After studying philosophy at Trent University and holding various odd jobs -- tree planting, dishwashing, security guard -- he began to write and travel on his own, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. He is currently living in Berlin where he is a visiting lecturer at the Free University.

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He is the prize-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and of Self, a novel. Life of Pi, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Governor-General's Award last year when it was published in Canada.

This year's Booker result comes from a shortlist with a weighty Canadian presence. Of the six nominees, half were Canadian.

Second-time nominee Carol Shields was honoured for her eighth novel, Unless, about a middle-aged writer whose perfect family life is disrupted when her teenage daughter drops out of university to become a mute panhandler on the streets of Toronto. While Ms. Shields, who is in hospital battling cancer, did not attend the event this time round, her daughter, Sarah Shields, was here in her place. Ms. Shields, however, was not without honours yesterday as she was appointed companion of the Order of Canada, the highest level of the order.

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