‘Kairos’ Wins the 2024 International Booker Prize

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On Tuesday 21 May, the International Booker Prize Ceremony took place at Tate Modern in London. After dramatic readings of shortlisted books by celebrities including Antonia Thomas and Dua Lipa, a range of discombobulated interviews of authors and translators conducted by bookstagrammer-turned-host Jack Edwards, and a regrettably short speech by Eleanor Wachtel, the Chair of the 2024 Judges, this year’s prize was awarded to Jenny Erpenbeck and her translator Michael Hofmann for the novel Kairos

Though the prize was only recently inaugurated, the book nevertheless made history for being the first German-language book to win. But as a historical and politically loaded novel, it very much continues in the footsteps of recent winners like Time Shelter and Tomb of Sand, which focused on temporal and ideological separationism. In its depiction of East Berlin mere years before the fall of the wall, Kairos seems like a variation on this theme.

As half the world gets ready to vote in what is the busiest election year on record, Erpenbeck’s novel is particularly timely. In its look back at history, it seems to address the rising popularity of secessionist parties that have mushroomed across Europe and much of the world. It also seems to address our tendency to forget. The world may not remember East Germany, but as the novel reminds us, it was its own country for nearly 45 years. The memories have faded but the lesions remain. 

Similarly, the prize is a reminder of the importance of translation and its ability to smooth over our differences. “There is this great “as if,”” Wachtel said about translation. “As if Brazilian subsistence farmers spoke English. As if a Korean protester on his perch on top of a factory chimney tower thought in English. As if an East German student remembered in English.” As the world continues to fragment, the International Booker Prize is a reminder that we are not so different after all.

Going forward, one hopes that the International Booker Prize – which has now been attributed to novels from nine different countries in as many years – will continue to expand. The surge of South American nominees (four of this year’s dozen) seems promising, but this year’s longlist remains very Euro-centric. As the prize continues to grow in importance, one hopes that this literary diversity will continue to flourish and allow for representation from all nations and continents, especially Africa and Oceania, to continue broadening the world’s horizons.

Words by Elkyn Ernst

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