On Wednesday evening, Shereen Abouelnaga, judging chair for the 2021 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, announced the winner of this year’s prize. It was Ahmed Taibaoui, for his novel The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody:
The noir Algerian novel was chosen from a six-book shortlist that was announced in early February. Those six shortlisted titles were chosen from among 270 Arabic novels submitted from around the world.
In his remarks during the announcement, Taibaoui thanked his readers and said that, “although I wrote it in a very short period of time, the idea itself has haunted me for a long time.”
In the novel, the protagonist is caring for an old man who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The old man dies, and an officer begins investigating the circumstances of his demise only to find that the man cannot be identified—he is a Mr. Nobody.
Yet in the novel, Abouelnaga said, there is a succession of nobodies: “‘Mr. Nobody’ takes off his face and disappears, so that the main issue here is the disappearance of ‘Mr. Nobody’. Then another ‘Mr. Nobody’ investigates this disappearance.”
The other judges of this year’s were translator Humphrey Davies; translator and author Thaer Deeb; translator and academic Samah Selim; and critic Hebba Sherif.
In a prepared statement, Davies called the novel a book of “unpleasant truths.” He notes that Taibaoui “uses the prism of the police novel (a genre well suited, on the face of it, for the casting of light into dark corners) but the further the detective delves into this world of poverty, marginalization, and decomposing bodies, the less sure he becomes of what he knows. From the somber but intense style, vivid characters emerge.”
“I was, and still am, interested in social and cultural margins, and giving a voice to the voiceless…The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody is an expression of one’s abandonment of his human identity,” Taibaoui told The Caravan earlier this year.
This is Taibaoui’s fourth novel. In 2011, he won the President of the Republic of Algeria’s first prize for Young Creatives for his novel Al-Maqam al-‘Ali. He also won the Tayeb Salih International Award for Written Creativity for his 2014 novel.
The award brings its winner a cash prize of $5,000, as well as translation into English and publication under AUC Press’s fiction imprint, Hoopoe.