Facts and fiction of judging the Booker

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The Independent Culture

JUDGING OF the Booker Prize is often described as if it were a matter of five people sitting around a table and coming to the same conclusion simultaneously.

JUDGING OF the Booker Prize is often described as if it were a matter of five people sitting around a table and coming to the same conclusion simultaneously.

The reality, inevitably, is very different. Last night J M Coetzee's marvellous novel Disgrace won the Booker in its 30th anniversary year. His harrowing and profound fable of South Africa's predicament is as worthy and impressive a winner as the prize has ever had.

But to pretend this process was easy and without conflict would be ridiculous. As the chairman of the judges, Gerald Kaufman, said in his speech, this was a split jury. Anita Desai's account of the unhappiness of women in India and the United States, Fasting, Feasting , proved a serious competitor for Coetzee until the final stages of the judging. In a sense, it was a great privilege for the five judges to have to decide between two of the greatest writers of fiction in English at the present time.

Neither book makes for comfortable or optimistic reading. Yet both come from artists at the height of their powers who prove that the future of English literature depends, to a large extent, on writers whose origins lie thousands of miles away from the British Isles.

Coetzee's novel will provoke furious debate in South Africa for its uncompromising portrayal of the post-apartheid society. Anita Desai's work deserves to stimulate just as much discussion in India on account of its ruthless depictionof the effects of patriarchy in traditional Indian society. Coetzee deservedly won the Booker, the first author to do so twice, but both of these closely matched contenders deserve recognition as supreme artists in English fiction.

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