McEwan accepts J'lem Prize at opening of Int'l Book Fair

A novel has the power to shape minds on both sides of a conflict, says author in speech that expresses some controversial political opinions.

Ian McEwan 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ian McEwan 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Renowned British author Ian McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of Society at the opening event of the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair on Sunday night at the International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha’uma).
In a speech that celebrated the power of the novel to construct a new reality, McEwan expressed some controversial political opinions that angered a few attendees, and elicited one boo from the audience in the middle of his speech.
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“There are some similarities between a novel and a city,” McEwan, author of 11 novels including Atonement, The Innocent, The Comfort of Strangers, and Chesin Beach, told the crowd of 200.
“A novel is not merely a book of pages and a cover, but a particular kind of mental space, a place of investigation into human nature. A city is not only an agglomeration of streets and buildings, it is also a field of dreams,” he said.
“Peoples, both individual and imaginary, have a real struggle for their right to self-realization,” continued McEwan.
“The novel was born out of curiosity about and respect for the individual and a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others,” he said, adding that a single novel has the power to reshape minds on both sides of a conflict.
McEwan said he had received criticisms of “varying degrees of civility” after he announced his decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize in late January. Some pro-Palestinian groups denounced his decision publicly in England’s leading newspapers.
“They told me, whatever I believe about literature, I can’t escape the politics, and I sadly must concede this was the case,” McEwan said.
He noted that the award itself, which honors the freedom of the individual in society, “sits a little awkwardly with the current system in Jerusalem.”
But he added that he preferred to come and engage with both Israelis and Palestinians than to refuse to accept the prize. On Friday, McEwan joined famous Israeli writer David Grossman at the weekly Sheikh Jarrah protests by leftists in east Jerusalem.
Israeli poet Michal Govrin (Snapshots, Hold Onto the Sun), one of the jurists who chose McEwan for the award, applauded his courage to attend despite the pressure.
His speech was a “good beginning about how to write about Jerusalem in different ways, because writers have the ability to imagine Jerusalem differently from politicians,” she said.
But others were angered by McEwan’s comparisons, including the way he equated Hamas shooting rockets from Gaza with Jews continuing to build in east Jerusalem and the settlements.
“I think he had an understanding of the bigger picture,” said Aya, a Jerusalem resident who has attended many of the book fairs. “But some of the ways he rationalized things were exaggerated.”
The Jerusalem Prize, considered Israel’s highest literary prize for a foreign writer, was presented by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. The ceremony was also attended by President Shimon Peres, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, and some of the 600 authors, editors, publishers, and agents attending this year’s fair.
The biennial fair is open to the public free of charge and runs from Sunday through Thursday. Hundreds of publishers showcasing their newest books. Dozens of authors will give lectures throughout the fair, and a daily children’s hour will take place at 4 p.m. A full list of events is available at
Livnat used the opening ceremony of the fair to announce a new initiative of the Culture and Sport Ministry to dedicate half a million shekels to translating 10 Israeli books into English and other languages each year. The books will be chosen by a committee. The NIS 500,000 is already budgeted, so Livnat said the translations would start immediately.
Mayor Nir Barkat said he was honored that Jerusalem was able to host such a prestigious literary event. He added that much of the city’s ability to inspire artists and writers is drawn from its many conflicts, but that those same artists and writers have an ability to influence the divisions.
“Culture enables more people to find the common denominator,” he said. “Books serve bridges between cultures allowing us to promote tolerance and allow us to recognize differences and similarities.”
McEwan agreed with the mayor’s assessment, though he did have one complaint about the city.
“All I can say that Jerusalem lacks is small talk,” he said.
“There is no small talk in Jerusalem. It is the most intense place that I have ever set foot.”