Booker Prize nominee sees SAR as true home

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 September, 1998, 12:00am

Hong Kong has come its closest yet to literary greatness after long-time resident and writer Martin Booth's surprise nomination yesterday for one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, the Booker Prize.

Booth, 54, spent 12 years in Hong Kong from the age of six and has since returned every year. His book Industry of Souls was one of six on the short-list that includes works by Beryl Bainbridge, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.

The GBP20,000 (HK$262,000) prize traditionally propels writers to fame as it did last year's winner, Arundhati Roy, for The God of Small Things.

Booth, best known in Hong Kong for his non-fiction Opium: A History and his novel about a prisoner-of-war in Hong Kong, Hiroshima Joe, is attending the British Council's first Eye on Books Festival along with two tipped contenders spurned by the six Booker judges: Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore, 45, for Your Blue-eyed Boy, and Sri Lankan-born Romesh Gunesekera, 44, for The Sandglass.

The King George V-educated Booth said yesterday: 'Nobody is more surprised than me.' Saying that he had never been invited to a London literary party, he ascribed his nomination to 'luck'.

'Literary awards are a lottery,' he said, declaring that he would only celebrate if he won.

The Industry of Souls is only the second fiction work to be published by a tiny northern England publishing house, Dewi Lewis Publishing.

In the novel, Englishman Alexander Bayliss has languished for 25 years in a Soviet gulag on false spying charges after the authorities faked his death. No longer feeling part of his homeland, he spends his 80th birthday in a Soviet village with relatives of a friend he made in the mines where he was punished.

Booth has a similar dual identity. 'Britain is where I work but Hong Kong is where I come to live,' he said.