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Ondaatje, Unsworth Split Britain's Booker Prize

October 18, 1992

Looking for a good novel? It seems the judges for Britain's Booker Prize found two. Unable to decide between Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" and Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger," the committee gave the prestigious literary award to the writers jointly.

Ondaatje and Unsworth will share the $34,000 prize given by Booker, an international food-and-agriculture business. Co-winners were named once before, in 1974, when Stanley Middleton and Nadine Gordimer shared the honor.

Michael Ondaatje is a Canadian of Sri Lankan birth, a poet, playwright and novelist. "The English Patient" (published here by Alfred A. Knopf) is set in wartime Italy; the following is adapted from Richard Eder's recent review in these pages:

The Villa Girolamo in Ondaatje's magically told novel is a wayside haven, a place of silence where the cacophony of world conflagration is filtered down into individual voices. There is a nurse who, among her ministrations, reads aloud to her patient; she continues reading for herself after he falls asleep each evening, so that "his books had gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by rain." The patient, who may be a Nazi, is a severely burned man, close to death, from whose blackened mouth comes a serene flow of images and stories. Caravaggio is a professional burglar now in the service of Allied intelligence. Kip, a young Sikh officer, faces death each day in his lethal job of disarming unexploded mines and bombs. These four people, each damaged, find a refuge where the rupture between their stories and their lives can begin to mend.

Barry Unsworth, born into a mining family in Durham, northern England, now lives in Umbria, Italy. From Roland Merullo's review of "Sacred Hunger" (published by Doubleday):

"Money is sacred, as everyone knows," says a character in this rich and beautifully written novel. "So, then, must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it." "Sacred Hunger" is set in the mid-18th Century, though the remark quoted, like many of the book's moral lessons and debates, might also be applied to modern times. The plot, too--centering on the purchase of slaves and their shipment from Africa to America--has important contemporary echoes. Unsworth has not merely created a cardboard past and painted it with political correctness; he has given us a real, sweating, breathing, bleeding, complex world, a world in which blacks sell other blacks into slavery and whites flog and cheat each other to turn a profit, and a few heroic men and women of both races struggle toward justice against the prevailing social values and their own fears and doubts.

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