Moving prisoner epic wins France's top literary prize

Paris (AFP) –


A moving and colourful epic about a prisoner looking back on his life won France's top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, Monday.

"Anything can happen (in life)!" declared 69-year-old Jean-Paul Dubois as he was mobbed after the prize was announced in a Paris restaurant.

"It's adorable... but I don't think winning it will change my life much," said the journalist and novelist who already has an army of fans for books like "A French Life", a saga about the country's baby boom generation who like him were forged by the Paris student revolt of 1968.

It won the prestigious Femina prize in 2004 and was published in English three years later.

"I will be the same tomorrow as I was this morning," insisted the writer, who still lives in the beautiful house in Toulouse where he was born.

The sad, nostalgic hero of his new book, "Tous les hommes n'habitent pas le monde de la même façon" (roughly translated as "All Men Do Not Inhabit This World in the Same Way") also has roots in the southwestern French city.

But his life is destroyed by a moment of madness and he finds himself sharing a tiny cell in a Canadian jail with a Hells Angel who has threatened to "cut him in two" if he gets on the wrong side of him.

- 'French John Irving' -

Yet the hulking thug is reduced to jelly by the sight of mice and a barber's scissors.

The chairman of the Goncourt jury Bernard Pivot described Dubois as a French "John Irving or William Boyd", writing highly entertaining books that are both popular and critical successes.

Several French critics had hailed the novel as Dubois' best.

To keep himself sane, the narrator, Paul Hansen, talks to the dead in his head.

They include his late partner Winona, a half-Irish, half-Native American hydroplane pilot; his dog Nouk; his father, a Danish pastor, and his French mother who didn't think twice about showing porno films in her cinema despite being married to a clergyman.

While Dubois gets only 10 euros ($11) for winning the Goncourt, the prize almost guarantees a boost in sales of 450,000 copies or more, placing it instantly among the year's top bestsellers.

Minutes later the Renaudot, often seen as the consolation prize, was handed to Sylvain Tesson for "The Snow Leopard", an account of his search in Tibet for one of the most endangered animals on the planet.

"I hope it will help us save and better understand these animals which have so much need of our help now," Tesson said.

"I feel like the rabbit who has been pulled out of a hat," he joked, or "a leopard in a world where order has been restored."