Global Ukraine

Peter Pomerantsev wins 2016 Ondaatje Prize

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Written by Michael Kerr
Source: The Telegraph

An electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in which television is the chief tool of authoritarianism, has won the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize, for «a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place».

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev, an award-winning television producer, details the cynicism and simulation he found while making reality shows for the TNT network (sponsored by a giant gas company) from an office called Byzantium, and then working for Ostankino, «the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda». The job brought him into contact with gold-diggers, gangsters, oligarchs in Moscow and London, and television producers, who told him: «The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions».

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The journalist Kate Adie, one of the judges for the prize – with the writer and critic Mark Lawson and the poet Moniza Alvi – described the book as «an exuberant exposure of greed and corruption in modern Russia. The grotesque pursuit of money is conveyed in glittering, trenchant prose, as is a country where gangsters rule and the river of tainted money flows easily to London».

Pomerantsev, a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, was born in Kiev but grew up in England, where his parents had fled as political exiles in the 1970s. He returned to Moscow in 2006 to work in television – «a window-dressing Westerner, helping them create a pretend Western society».

Now in its 13th year, the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature is sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer. Poetry figured for the first time in seven years on the shortlist, which was also unusual in featuring no novels.

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Traveller and writer Christopher Ondaatje, sponsor of the Ondaatje Prize
Credit: Graham Jepson

The other shortlisted books were:

  • The River by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books), a debut poetry collection, rooted in family life and on the farm where she grew up in the west of Ireland;
  • The Great Explosion by Brian Dillon (Penguin), an exploration of the marshlands of north Kent and their military-industrial past;
  • Weatherland by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson), an account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries;
  • The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Penguin), a bestselling account of Lake District farming that began as a Twitter feed;
  • This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian, in which the Indian Tamil writer examines the scars left on Sri Lanka by its 26-year civil war.
 The Christ the Saviour Cathedral dominates the skyline of downtown Moscow Credit: AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel
The Christ the Saviour Cathedral dominates the skyline of downtown Moscow
Credit: AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel

Winning books in previous years have included titles as diverse as In the Country of Men, the debut novel of the Libyan writer Hisham Matar, and This Boy, in which the former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson recalled growing up poor in post-war London. Last year’s winner was Justin Marozzi, the travel writer and historian, for Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

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