BEIRUT: France’s most prestigious prize for literature, Le Prix Goncourt, garnered an unusual level of attention in Lebanon this year thanks to the Goncourt Academy’s unprecedented participation at the city’s annual Francophone book fair, “Le Salon du Livre.”The 20th anniversary of the book fair, which took place at BIEL from Oct. 26 to Nov. 4, was the biggest edition yet, with over 150 authors participating. For some, the highlight of the nine-day event came on Oct. 30, when six Academy members announced the prize’s shortlist of four authors.
In honor of the Academy’s first visit to the region a second prize, “Le Choix de l’Orient” (The Choice of the Orient) was awarded for the first time, organized by the French Institute and Le Bureau Moyen-Orient de l’Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (Middle Eastern Office of the Agency of Francophone Universities).
The new prize is awarded to an author selected from among the Goncourt Academy’s second selection of eight titles and was awarded by a student jury on Oct. 31, the day after the Academy narrowed down the list from eight to four.
A total of 18 juries were formed by students from 13 universities across the Middle East, each of which selected one title from the shortlist of eight. The president of each jury was then invited to Beirut to form a grand jury, presided over by Lebanese poet and novelist Hyam Yared and poet, translator and journalist Iskandar Habache.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the grand jury – whose members hail from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Palestine – chose to award the prize to a book set in the Middle East, selecting French author Mathias Enard for “Rue des Voleurs” (Street of Thieves), published by Actes Sud.
The novel tells the story of Lakhdar, a teenager living in Tangiers with a love of amateur thrillers and classical Arab literature who gets caught up in the events of the Arab Spring. As a result of his win, Enard, who did not make the Goncourt Prize shortlist, will have his book translated into Arabic.
Awarded Wednesday in Paris, the Goncourt prize went to Corsican author Jerome Ferrari for his novel “Le Sermon sur le Chute de Rome” (The Sermon on the Fall of Rome). Ferrari’s work takes its title from the first of four sermons given by the medieval philosopher Augustine after the sacking of Rome in the year 410 A.D.
The subject of the novel is somewhat more modest in scope – a local bar in a small village in Corsica. The pub undergoes a dramatic renovation by its new managers, two young men who give up their studies in philosophy to transform the bar into “the best of all possible worlds.”
Their dream quickly turns into a nightmare, however, when alcohol, sex and violence enter the mix, turning their intended heaven on earth into a living hell. The Goncourt jury described the book as a “fine parable on contemporary hopelessness, but with a hopeful message.”
Ferrari told AFP that he wanted to show that “the same mechanism can apply to empires, a village bar or the hearts of men.”