Polish bestseller scoops Man Booker International Prize

Polish bestseller scoops Man Booker International Prize

Olga Tokarczuk has become the first Polish author to scoop the £50,000 Man Booker International Prize for Flights, "brilliantly translated" by Jennifer Croft and published by independent press Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Both the Polish writer and American translator will receive £25,000, splitting the £50,000 prize money equally, on top of a £1,000 sum that each receives for being shortlisted.

Flights is a Polish bestseller linking fragments from the 17th century to the present day connected by themes of travel and human anatomy. It was hailed "wonderfully playful" and "witty and ironic" by the judges.

It contains the story of the real Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who in the 17th century dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg, in the process discovering the Achilles tendon, and the story of Chopin’s heart as it made a covert journey from Paris to Warsaw while stored in a tightly sealed jar beneath his sister’s skirt. It also includes present-day stories, such as the slow descent into madness of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanished on a vacation on a Croatian island and then appeared again with no explanation.

Chair of the judges Lisa Appignanesi said deliberations had been "hardly easy" with the shortlist a "strong" one.

Tokarczuk and Croft triumphed on a shortlist including former winners of the prize, Han Kang and Deborah Smith, who were this year in the running for The White Book (Portobello Books). Also competing were Oneworld's Frankenstein in Baghdad, authored by Ahmed Saadawi and translated by Jonathan Wright, MacLehose Press title Vernon Subutex 1, authored by Virginie Despentes and translated by Frank Wynne, and two contenders from Tuskar Rock Press: Antonio Muñoz Molina's Like a Fading Shadow translated by Camilo A. Ramirez and László Krasznahorkai's The World Goes On translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and George Szirtes.

However, it was agreed Flights had been "brilliantly translated" by Croft from the Polish and that its author Tokarczuk, a trained psychologist at the University of Warsaw, was "a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache".

The Prize commended the book for guiding the reader "beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind". Appignanesi said further that Croft "by a series of startling juxtapositions ... flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament – where only plastic escapes mortality".

The panel of judges, also comprising poet and translator Michael Hofmann, White Tears author Hari Kunzru, journalist and critic Tim Martin and writer Helen Oyeyemi, jointly commented: "Flights is about the contemporary condition of perpetual movement, which is also about never leaving your body, which itself is in movement and is going to die. It’s a book about nomadism; it’s a book about escape, about going from place to place and living in airports. But at the same time you do inhabit a body and therefore we cannot escape the final thing, which is the grim reaper. Meanwhile it is also wonderfully playful and witty and ironic."

Flights' author Tokarczuk, 56, has authored eight novels and two short-story collections and Croft, 36, is a writer and translator from Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian, having studied for an MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa and having lived in Argentina and Poland. She is now based in Los Angeles and is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Luke Ellis, c.e.o. of Man Group, added: "Along with my colleagues at Man Group, I would like to congratulate Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft, as well as each of the shortlisted authors and translators. As a firm, we welcome and encourage diversity and difference across our business. The Man Booker International Prize plays an important role in celebrating extraordinary fiction in translation, and we are proud to support the prize as it continues to bring the breadth and depth of global literary talent to the attention of readers worldwide."