Turkish author wins international literature prize
Burhan Sönmez (C) and Ümit Hussein (R) pose with Sir Suma Chakrabarti, President of the EBRD.
“Istanbul Istanbul,” a novel by Turkish author Burhan Sönmez, translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein, has won a new international literature prize, launched by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
The prize, awarded at a ceremony at the bank’s headquarters in London on 10 April, was created last year by the EBRD, in partnership with the British Council and the London Book Fair (LBF). The 20,000 euro prize will be split between the author and translator.
Set after a military coup, the winning novel is a love song to Istanbul inspired by the author’s own experiences. Below the ancient streets of Istanbul, four prisoners sit, awaiting their turn at the hands of their interrogators.
When they are not being subjected to unimaginable violence, the condemned tell one another stories about the city, shaded with love and humor, to pass the time.
In a style that resembles Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century classic “The Decameron,” the prisoners’ narratives slowly turn into a story of the city itself, increasingly blurring the line between life above and below ground.
“Istanbul Istanbul is a life-affirming novel of profound humanity and exquisite writing. And Sönmez is a major writer, a highly deserving winner of this major new prize. Yes, the novel is set in a prison cell, yes, it’s set in Turkey, but at no point does it condemn or take a position: It’s our story too,” said Rosie Goldsmith, chair of the judging panel.
“The four protagonists are on a quest to find kindness and beauty in a world of cruelty. They are fully rounded, real characters with flaws and oddities, gripping us not with accounts of violence and torture but through their humor and conversation. Sönmez wears his immense learning lightly and together with his literary companion Ümit Hussein, his outstanding translator, they have created a prize-winning novel of great passion and poetry,” said Goldsmith.