Hisham Matar wins Orwell prize for political fiction

Pulitzer prize winner Hisham Matar has won this year’s Orwell prize for political fiction for his third novel My Friends, which follows three Libyan exiles in London.

Matthew Longo won the nonfiction counterpart – the Orwell prize for political writing – for The Picnic, about a group of Hungarian activists who staged a pan-European summer party near the militarised Austrian border in August 1989. During the picnic, 600 East Germans breached the border unhindered by guards – an event which came to be seen as a catalyst for the fall of the Berlin wall.

Longo and Matar, who will each receive £3,000, were announced as the winners at a ceremony at Conway Hall in London on Thursday evening.

At the heart of My Friends is a real-life event from 1984, when officials opened fire on protesters at the Libyan embassy in London. “Matar’s response to those gunshots is a richly sustained meditation on exile and friendship, love and distance, deepening with each page as layers of recollection and experience accrue,” said writer Alexandra Harris, who chaired the political fiction judging panel.

Matar introduces his characters “into historical tableaux, thereby giving those public events the immediacy of personal experience”, wrote Lucy Hughes-Hallett in a Guardian review of the novel.

Joining Harris on the political fiction prize panel were novelists Simon Okotie and Ross Raisin and academic Lara Choksey.

Choosing the political writing prize winner was “incredibly difficult”, said Peter Frankopan, who chaired the nonfiction judging panel. Their final choice, The Picnic, “focuses on the way that communist rule over much of central and eastern Europe unravelled in the summer of 1989.

“Many thought that if change came to this region, it would come through conflict and warfare. Yet it was an innocuous picnic that caused the winds of change to blow – and to transform Europe and beyond. Beautifully written and relying on oral sources, The Picnic reads like a thriller.”

Alongside Frankopan on the political writing prize judging panel was British Future think tank director Sunder Katwala, journalist Christina Lamb, writer Lola Seaton and former Downing Street aide Rohan Silva.

“The Picnic is a brisk and engaging account, told in a lively blend of novelistic narration and reportage and featuring interviews with a number of people closely involved in these historic events,” wrote Houman Barekat in a Guardian review of the book.

The Picnic is Longo’s second book; his first book, The Politics of Borders, was published in 2017. He is an assistant professor of political science at Leiden University.

Matar won the Pulitzer prize for biography or autobiography in 2017 for his memoir, The Return, chronicling the writer’s journey to try to discover what had happened to his father, who was kidnapped by Gaddafi’s agents when Matar was 19. His debut novel, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the 2006 Booker prize.

Other finalists for the political writing prize included Revolutionary Acts by Jason Okundaye, Eve by Cat Bohannon and The Achilles Trap by Steve Coll. Finalists for the political fiction prize included Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan, James by Percival Everett and Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan.

Previous winners of the political fiction prize include Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead and Claire Keegan, while previous political writing prize winners include Patrick Radden Keefe and Sally Hayden.

In 2023, two debut books won the prizes: Peter Apps’ Show Me the Bodies, an account of the policy decisions leading up to the Grenfell Tower fire, and Tom Crewe’s The New Life, which dramatises the struggle to change Britain’s laws related to homosexuality in the 1890s.

The Guardian