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International Booker Prize 2024: 'Kairos' by Jenny Erpenbeck wins

Jenny Erpenbeck
Jenny Erpenbeck Copyright International Booker Prize/Katharina Behling
Copyright International Booker Prize/Katharina Behling
By Amber Louise Bryce
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Jenny Erpenbeck is the first German writer to win the International Booker Prize.

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The winner of the international Booker prize is 'Kairos' by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann. 

Epenbeck is the first German writer to win the award. 

A tumultuous love story told to the backdrop of 1986 Berlin, it's about a young woman that meets an older, married man on a bus. They begin an intense and passionate affair - until she sleeps with someone else for a night, resulting in emotional fissures that echo the collapse of East Germany.

Erpenbeck described it as: ‘A private story of a big love and its decay, but it’s also a story of the dissolution of a whole political system. Simply put: How can something that seems right in the beginning, turn into something wrong?’ 

'Kairos' - a tumultuous love story that mimics its political backdrop.
'Kairos' - a tumultuous love story that mimics its political backdrop.International Booker Prize

It was chosen from a shortlist of six books representing six languages (Dutch, German, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish) across six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, South Korea and Sweden) and three continents (Asia, Europe and South America).

"I come from a family of writers. So, my grandparents were writers, my father used to write fiction as well, and my mum was a translator, from Arabic to German. She translated a Nobel Prize Winner," Erpenbeck said in her speech. 

"There was much writing in my family on all sides, and now I'm standing here, and I'm very honoured," she continued. 

"It's funny being the back half of a pantomime horse, or the brakeman on a bobsleigh team, but there is something exhilarating about translating, doing something in a big zigzag as quickly and finely as you can," Michael Hofmann said when accepting his award, the first male translator to win it. 

The ceremony was hosted at London's Tate Modern, with Eleanor Wachtel, Chair of the 2024 judges, announcing the £50,000 prize, which is split equally between author and translator. 

"What makes Kairos so unusual is that it is both beautiful and uncomfortable, personal and political," Wachtel said in a press release.

"Erpenbeck invites you to make the connection between these generation-defining political developments and a devastating, even brutal love affair, questioning the nature of destiny and agency. Like the GDR, it starts with optimism and trust, then unravels."

The International Booker Prize is also one of the few awards to honour the vital work of translators in particular.

"Michael Hofmann’s translation captures the eloquence and eccentricities of Erpenbeck’s writing, the rhythm of its run-on sentences, the expanse of her emotional vocabulary," Wachtel said. 

The judges included award-winning poet Natalie Diaz; Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist Romesh Gunesekera; visual artist William Kentridge and writer, editor and translator Aaron Robertson.

Georgi Gospodinov was last year's winner with his book ‘Time Shelter’, about a psychiatrist that recreates specific decades of time in clinical rooms to treat Alzheimer’s patience - although healthy people looking for an escape from everyday life also start to seek it out.

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