Paul Verhaeghen has won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his novel Omega Minor, published by Dalkey Archive Press. His victory with this exuberant, pyrotechnic, toweringly ambitious epic is a suitably mould-breaking event. To begin with, the Belgian-born cognitive psychologist translated his own work into English from the Dutch. (He has taught in the US since 1997, and is associate professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.) So, theoretically, he should scoop the entire prize money of £10,000. However, as with the three major honours that the Dutch version has already collected in the Netherlands and Belgium, he won't pocket a penny. He will donate the award to charity – this time, to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"When Omega Minor was nominated for its first award, the news about Abu Ghraib had just broken," Verhaeghen explains, relating the Nazi and Soviet "war on rationality" that his book explores to post-Iraq America. "How could I not see the proto-fascist tendencies in the country that is now my own – the concentration of all power in the executive branch, the suspension of habeas corpus, the circumventing of international law... the trivialising and export of torture?"
Below, two of the Prize judges offer their appreciations of this astonishing novel: a starbust of stories that ripples between Nazi-era and 1990s Berlin (where Verhaeghen has lived and worked), between the death camps and the nuclear site at Los Alamos, between historical drama, scientific speculation and even an airport-thriller vein of sex, showdown and suspense. Abdulrazak Gurnah (novelist and professor of English at the University of Kent) and Florence Noiville (literary editor at Le Monde, biographer and novelist) were joined on the panel by Kate Griffin, international literature officer at Arts Council England, and myself.
Omega Minor barnstormed its way to victory, but the five other shortlisted novels proved fierce competitors. Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Quercus) ran the winner closest. Each of the other contenders gained warm support: Bengt Ohlsson's Gregorius (trans. Silvester Mazzarella; Portobello); Marlene van Niekerk's The Way of the Women (trans. Michiel Heyns; Little, Brown), Pawel Huelle's Castorp (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Serpent's Tail) and Lars Saabye Christensen's The Model (trans. Don Bartlett; Arcadia)
The victor feels that "Being based in the States as a European makes me, if not an exile, then at least a bastard. The book is a bastard, too. It is a very serious novel of ideas, with deep questions about morality and humanity and all that – just like any ambitious book written by a mainland European. But it also uses plot, in both meanings... to propel the action forward – just like any American novelist worth his salt would".
Any latterday author who dares to venture into the dark heart of the Third Reich – and especially one as prodigally inventive as this – may face accusations of exploiting a tragedy that does not belong to him. "The only way you can do the material justice is by being simply honest to it," Verhaeghen argues, "by becoming history's handmaiden. What I wanted to show in this book more than anything is how complex it is to live in the world – any world".
He adds that "One of my main characters, modelled after a very real person, is a Jewish woman who points out fellow Jews to the Gestapo. She (like her real-life counterpart) does this because for every person she brings in, the Gestapo sets free one person of her choice. That is a real-life dilemma."
Trust the tale of the past in all its wrenching complexities, he says, not the teller: "The only way to do right by history in a novel is to absorb it, then place your characters in it and let them loose. Before you know it, they will be up against the wall, facing... all the vicissitudes of life. When the book enters Auschwitz, I want the reader to enter Auschwitz with me. I want her to see it, to hear it, to smell it. I want her to be the exhaustion, I want her to be the despair, I want her to live the instinct of survival. There is no appropriation. It is the voice of history that speaks, not mine."
Some reviewers have – with varying degrees of unease – pointed to the florid eroticism of Omega Minor, a sexual carnival that does not stop even at the gates of death-camp hell. Verhaeghen retorts that "European readers shudder at the violence in the novel, which is indeed all too real; Americans and Britons apparently find sex more obscene – or at least more remarkable than murder or torture. Shame on you, then.
"That being said: sex, for a writer, is an interesting laboratory... It establishes character in a quick way." His novel "starts with a sexual act. and ends with one. They couldn't be further apart: one is about the use and abuse of power, the other about love. That is, perhaps, the whole arch of the book right there".
Verhaeghen is the first self-translator to take the Prize (generously supported again by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger). Yet he reports that "I stumbled into the translation". To lure foreign publishers, the Flemish Fund for Literature "had a few trial pages translated, and although the translation was excellent, I did not recognise my voice. Which was the first time I realised I apparently had a voice in (American) English." So how does his English novel differ from the Dutch? "It's not a new book, and it's not a slavish copy. I felt I could take a few liberties here and there, twist sentences around, insert new puns... correct a few mistakes. I wanted to avoid having a book that read as if it had been translated."
In a sense, Verhaeghen stumbled into fiction too: "I never went looking for this book, it found me. And when it was done, I was truly exhausted". Now, with the epic that he "needed to write" behind him, he is working on an academic monograph for OUP on mental chronometry and ageing: "I sincerely hope it does not turn out to contain too much fiction."
Still, "Omega Minor taught me that the muse has my number. The modicums of recognition for this book, the biggest of which is this unbelievable award, is starting to convince me that perhaps I better leave my answering machine on."
'Omega Minor' is available for £9.99 from 0870 079 8897
Omega Minor is a novel of great ambition. Its subject is the story of Berlin in the 20th century, or rather the stories of Berlin, because one of the most striking characteristics of Paul Verhaeghen's novel is how much finds its way into it. A young Flemish psychologist goes to Potsdam on a postdoctoral fellowship. He gets beaten up by neo-Nazi thugs, becomes infatuated with an Italian researcher working on quantum physics, and befriends a Holocaust survivor who dictates his memoir. This is the route to the novel's three main narratives: the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the development of the atomic bomb, and the detailed inhumanity of the Nazi extermination machine. These are the bare bones of the novel, but circulating between them are episodes rich in drama, portraits of historical figures, reflections on the pornography of violence, lectures on nuclear science, the politics of divided post-war Germany, and cameos on magic, on mid-century German theatre and film, and on scientific research. Verhaeghen keeps this unruly mob of tales together expertly, with writing of impressive clarity and vigour. The narrative is unafraid to go anywhere, and this energy occasionally leads it into exuberant bad taste and exaggeration, as in its scenes of SS brothel orgies. But these are not important blemishes, and the novel sweeps on and leaves them behind. The narrative hardly falters in pace and is full of surprises and felicities. It is written with originality and a humane intelligence evident in all its concerns.
Flaubert wanted to write "a novel about nothing". Paul Verhaeghen seems to be aiming at the exact contrary: absorbing the whole 20th century in a single book. In Omega Minor, he creates a never-ending web of stories rooted in almost every field of knowledge, intertwining literature, history, poetry, philosophy, neuroscience, physics and metaphysics. One of the many ideas of the book is about escaping the past – or finding that it is impossible to escape. It is also about a simple and awful truth: that although reality is beyond our understanding, we continue to believe that the world is ultimately comprehensible. "Behavior is irrational and the world is governed by the most brutal chaos. But that's not what we have learned". To draw this conclusion, he uses an immense range of tones: smart and witty, inventive, compassionate, sarcastic... even pornographic. He is brilliant when it comes to working on words, taking risks and creating his own language. All this is uneven and deliberately excessive. But Omega Minor remains in the reader's mind as a tremendous achievement, probably one of the most ambitious novels about the past century.