By Jane Ross
Devilspel, a novel by Grigory Kanovich and translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen, has won the EBRD Literature Prize 2020.
The international prize, announced online April 22, was created in 2017 by the EBRD, in partnership with the British Council.
The €20,000(US$21, 645.94) prize will be split between the author and translator.
The EBRD Literature Prize champions the literary richness of its regions of operations, which include almost 40 countries stretching from Morocco to Mongolia, Estonia to Egypt. The Prize was also created to illustrate the importance of literary translation and to introduce the depth and variety of the voices and creativity from these regions to the English-speaking public and a wider global audience.
Devilspel, published by Noir Press, evokes the lost world of Lithuanian Jews during the Second World War.
Chair of the independent judging panel, Rosie Goldsmith describes the winning novel as “a literary microcosm of world history related through the lives of ordinary people. Devilspel is a moving and elegant novel of fine character portraits, told in restrained but beautiful prose, is set in a small town at a watershed moment of Lithuanian history when ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust enter the lives of the local Jews and non-Jews alike, dividing neighbours and families into persecuted and persecutors. A perfect narrative arc, starting in a cemetery and ending in a cemetery and peopled with memorable characters, such as Danuta, Eliesheva and Gedalye. It is never heavy-handed or breast-beating in spite of its horrific and heart-breaking subject matter. Translator and author are a perfect fit: the translator wears the mantle of the author as if they were the same size and have travelled together on the same journey.”
President of the EBRD, Suma Chakrabarti said: “The EBRD Literature Prize recognises the key role that the writer plays in society and also recognises the importance of the translator in bringing these writers’ voices and their ideas to a wider English-speaking audience. No less important, our Prize aims to promote awareness of the depth and variety of culture in the 38 countries in which we invest. The Bank also very much appreciates the support provided by the British Council, and above all the EBRD’s shareholders for funding the Bank’s Community Initiative, which sponsors the Literature Prize.”
Grigory Kanovich is one of the most prominent modern Lithuanian Jewish writers. He has written more than ten novels – a virtual epic saga – dealing with the vicissitudes of the history of Eastern European Jewry from the 19th century to the present day. Kanovich was born into a traditional Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Jonava. He has dedicated his life, in his own words, “to what has been lost, to what has been destroyed – the small Jewish town.” Kanovich has been awarded the Medal of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas and the Order for Merits to Lithuania. In 2014 he was awarded the National Prize for Culture and Arts. His novel Shtetl Love Song was awarded the Liudas Dovydenas Prize by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union.
Yisrael Elliot Cohen is an alumnus of both Harvard and Yale universities, and taught Russian literature and humanities at the University of Illinois. He settled in Israel in 1979, working as a professional translator from Russian into English and as an English-language editor. At Hebrew University he was co-editor of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe and worked on a bibliography project for the Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Currently at Yad Vashem, Cohen is working on The Untold Stories: Holocaust Murder Sites in the Soviet Union. Devilspel is the second novel by Grigory Kanovich that Cohen has translated.
The two runner-up titles in the EBRD Literature Prize 2020 received €2,000, also split between author and translator. These novels were Pixel by Krisztina Tóth translated from Hungarian by Owen Good (Publisher: Seagull Books), and Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated from Russian by Lisa C Hayden (Publisher, Oneworld Publications).
These titles were chosen from the original longlist of 10 titles selected by the judges.