The Goncourt to an Afghan, the Renaudot to a Guinean

Below, the Guardian’s article on the winners of France’s two most prestigious prizes, which this year go to two francophone writers: Atiq Rahimi, originally from Afghanistan, and Tierno Monénembo from Guinea. It is also the first Goncourt that goes to P.O.L. the most adventurous and avant-garde Paris publisher of the last 25 years (most years it is one of three big publishers, Gallimard, Grasset or Le Seuil who garner the prize, which has often given rise to rumors of more or less rigged juries).

In an interview, Atiq Rahmini, who got the Goncourt for Syngué sabour (The Patience Stone — an Iranian title) his fourth novel, the first he has written in French, said: “What a pleasure to write in an other language!” A feeling I share very deeply.

In the year when the literary world turned to France, with the award of the Nobel prize for literature to JMG le Clézio, Paris has returned the compliment, awarding two of the biggest prizes of the French literary calendar to writers born in Afghanistan and Guinea.

Atiq Rahimi has won the 2008 Goncourt prize with his fourth novel, Syngué sabour (Patience Stone), his first to be written directly in French rather than the Persian he spoke during his childhood in Afghanistan, while the Prix Renaudot has been taken by Tierno Monénembo for Le roi de Kahel (The King of Kahel).

Born in 1962, Rahimi was forced from Kabul in 1984, finding political asylum in Paris where he worked as a film-maker. His film version of his first novel, Earth and Ashes, won the Regard sur l’avenir prize at the 2004 Cannes festival.

His latest novel returns to Afghanistan, where a woman nurses her husband, a mujahideen fighter who has been paralysed by a bullet in the neck. Rahimi’s stripped-down prose takes the form of a monologue which gradually reveals more of the unnamed woman’s suffering as she becomes convinced her husband can hear what she is saying.

The Guinean novelist Tierno Monénembo, born in 1947, fled the dictatorship of Sékou Touré in 1969, travelling on foot to reach Senegal. He arrived in France in 1973, and published his first novel in 1979.

Much of his work deals with wandering and exile, with his 10th, Le roi de Kahel, no exception. It follows the life of the 19th-century French adventurer, Aimé Victor Olivier, as he travels in search of the Fula people with the motto “les connaitre plutôt que les combattre” – to get to know them, rather than to fight them.

Neither the Renaudot nor the Goncourt comes with a hefty cheque – the Renaudot offers no prize money at all, while the Goncourt winner takes home 10 euros – but both authors can expect their sales to be transformed, with winners of both prizes typically selling hundreds of thousands of copies. This year, however, Rahimi and Monénembo can expect stiff competition on the shelves from Ritournelle de la Faim (Hungry Ritornello), the latest novel from one JMG Clézio.

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