The jury was enraptured, but in Germany this year’s Man Booker Prize winner is still largely unknown. That should change quickly.
Anna Burns at the presentation of the Booker Prize Photo: imago/i Images
"No one on the jury has ever read anything like this before," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of the jury for the Man Booker Prize, when the most important British literary prize, endowed with 50,000 pounds, surprisingly went to the writer Anna Burns for her novel "Milkman." It is the first time someone from Northern Ireland has won the prize, which has been awarded to the best novel in English since 1969.
The book will endure, Appiah said: it is as useful for the "fractured societies in Lebanon and Syria as it is for the gender debate in the West." The 56-year-old tells a story of brutality, sexual assault and resistance, interspersed with caustic humor, he said.
What’s it about. The 18-year-old first-person narrator is harassed by a much older, married man nicknamed "Milkman." He fights in a paramilitary unit and takes advantage of society’s divisions and his power as a fighter to stalk her without ever getting physical. The narrator describes the reactions of those around her.
The place where the book is set is not mentioned, but it is clear that it is Northern Ireland. Anna Burns was born and raised in the Belfast neighborhood of Ardoyne, a Catholic nationalist enclave in the middle of Protestant territory. Wasteland still runs around the neighborhood as a buffer zone, despite the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Ardoyne is where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was re-established in the late 1960s. 6,600 Catholics live here in one and a half square kilometers, and 180 Ardoyne residents were killed by Protestant loyalists during the 25 years of conflict. It was a place where violence, mistrust and paranoia were rampant, says Burns, who has lived in England for 30 years, "I thought it was normality."
Her first novel, "No Bones," published in 2001, was already about a girl’s growing up during the troubles, as the political conflict there is euphemistically called. Milkman" sprang from "a few hundred words that were redundant in another novel I was working on," she says. She actually intended to turn it into a short story, but then it became a whole book.
"Milkman" is her fourth novel. The man’s nickname comes from the fact that the IRA used to distribute petrol bombs in milk crates to teenagers. The five jury members stressed that their unanimous decision had not been influenced by Northern Ireland’s presence in the Brexit debate or by the MeToo campaign. The book was challenging, Appiah said at the awards ceremony at London’s Guildhall.
The names dropped again
It’s not an easy read, both in terms of content and style. The narrative is couched in the linguistic style of Northern Ireland, there are almost no paragraphs, and the protagonists have no names. "The book doesn’t work with names," Burns says. "Initially, I tried a couple of times with names, but it made the narrative heavy and lifeless. So I took them out again."
Anna Burns has been fairly unknown on the literary scene, even in Ireland. She says writing has not been particularly lucrative for her. She often had to move because she couldn’t pay the bills. "With the prize money I will pay my debts, and from the rest I will live for now," she says. None of her books are yet available in German. That should change now. Whoever is commissioned to translate "Milkman" does not have an easy task ahead of them.