This year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the UK's leading award for contemporary literature in translation, has been won by the Belgian-born scientist and novelist Paul Verhaeghen for his novel Omega Minor.
The author, a cognitive psychologist who has worked in the US since 1997 and now teaches in Georgia, translated his epic of Nazi-era Berlin, atomic research and the long aftermath of the Third Reich into English from the Dutch original. So he stood to collect the entire prize money of £10,000, which is usually divided between author and translator.
Verhaeghen will donate his winnings to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in protest against the Bush administration's policies and what he described as "the proto-fascist tendencies in the country that is now my own", especially in relation to the Iraq war. "Retracting the tax portion of the Independent prize money from the US Treasury will shorten the war by mere seconds," the author said. "But the ACLU can use the money to great effect."
Omega Minor, published by Dalkey Archive Press, is a sprawling, inventive and exuberant novel that embraces both the grandest ideas and the vilest atrocities of the 20th century. It has won awards in the Netherlands and Belgium. Florence Noiville, literary editor at Le Monde and a judge of the Independent prize, praises it as "a tremendous achievement, probably one of the most ambitious novels about the past century".
Verhaeghen, who has worked in Berlin, where the bulk of Omega Minor is set during the Third Reich and the 1990s, calls himself as "an accidental novelist" and says his labours on the book destroyed his social life. "I never went looking for this book; it found me," he said.