An Albanian writer who endured years of censorship before seeking political asylum in France is to be the first recipient of the international version of the Man Booker prize for literature.
Ismail Kadare has beaten a stellar list of contenders including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Günter Grass and Philip Roth to take the £60,000 prize, awarded for a writer's whole body of work and not just one book.
Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark and Ian McEwan were British contenders for the award.
John Carey, the British literary critic who chaired the judging panel, said he had read none of Kadare's works until the last year, but had been astonished by his range from humour through romantic epics to politics.
"Ismail Kadare is a writer who maps a whole culture - its history, its passion, its folklore, its politics, its disasters. You really get to know about Albania - he's extraordinarily informative about that part of the world," he said. "But he is also a universal writer in a tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer."
Kadare, 69, said he was deeply honoured. "I am a writer from the Balkan fringe, a part of Europe which has long been notorious exclusively for news of human wickedness - armed conflicts, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and so on.
"My firm hope is that European and world opinion may henceforth realise that this region, to which my country belongs, can also give rise to other kinds of news and be the home of other kinds of achievement, in the field of the arts, literature and civilisation."
Kadare was born in the Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster near the Greek border in 1936. After Enver Hoxha established a communist dictatorship in 1954, Kadare found himself in frequent conflict with the authorities over his books, some of which were banned.
In the 1980s he smuggled some of his writings out to safety in France where he eventually sought political asylum in 1990.
Professor Carey said it was the kind of experience from which most British and American writers had been shielded. "I'm not saying you are necessarily a better writer if you come out of persecution and suffering, but if you can write about it, it does give you distinction," he said.
Translations of Kadare's novels, including The File on H, which explores Albania's links to Homeric verse, Broken April, about traditional Albanian blood feuds and The Palace of Dreams, a political allegory of totalitarianism, have been published in more than 40 countries.
The Man Booker International Prize is open to authors of any nationality, whose work is available in English, and will be awarded every two years, unlike the Man Booker Prize which is awarded annually to a British or Commonwealth author for a particular work.
Professor Carey said he hoped one consequence of the prize would be to make work in translation more widely available and read in Britain. "In France, there's a full edition of Kadare's works but here you have to search around to find his novels," he said. "We're very provincial. Having done the Booker Prize a couple of times, half of the stuff submitted is not much good. It doesn't make sense."
The cheque and a trophy will be presented to Kadare at a dinner in Edinburgh at the end of the month.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies