“How as a writer do you tell a story that needs to be shared, if it is not your story?” The question is at the heart of Diego Garcia, and here is one of the answers this restlessly inventive book proposes: you find new forms in which to tell it.
Diego Garcia has won this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, which I judged alongside the novelists Natasha Brown and Ali Smith, and the prize’s director Tim Parnell. The award, co-founded with the New Statesman in 2013, rewards novels that “break the mould or extend the possibilities of the novel form”.
Our winner does both. It is a collaboration between two writers: Natasha Soobramanien, British-Mauritian, and Luke Williams, Scottish, who began work on the book in 2011 and took ten years to complete it. The novel begins as a portrait of two writers, Damaris Caleemootoo and Oliver Pablo Herzberg, living together in Edinburgh. They are a conspiracy of two, with their own language and narrative style: the perspective shifts fluidly between “he”, “she” and “we” when they’re together; the page splits into two columns when they are apart. The pair pursue a hungry and jobless existence that consists of smoking “tubes”, stealing “blocks” (books), trading Bitcoin, worrying about “the Emergency”, dreaming of “the blow my book will deal to the military-industrial complex!” and scrabbling together enough funds for a pie from Greggs.
An encounter with a charismatic stranger introduces the novel’s core concern: Britain’s theft of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. Diego is a wandering poet named after Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. Its inhabitants – including Diego’s mother – were expelled by British soldiers between 1968 and 1973, so their homeland could be leased to the US government for the construction of a military base.
[See also: Diego Garcia is the first collaborative novel to win the Goldsmiths Prize]
As Damaris and Oliver Pablo become absorbed by the Chagos case, the vivid, rolling prose of the Edinburgh sections is punctuated by quotes from documentaries and legal documents, which feed into a short story written by Damaris. Then, after Diego has disappeared and Damaris and Oliver Pablo have gone their separate ways, a correspondence between the two writers throws new light on everything that has gone before. And the tale, it seems, is still unfolding: on 4 November 2022, six months after the publication of the novel, the British government reversed its previous position and announced that it will negotiate with Mauritius over the return of the Chagos Islands.
In an Edinburgh bookshop, as Damaris is consumed by a very specific hunger for spaghetti vongole, Oliver Pablo reads aloud from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. In it, Adorno urges us to value “the irreplaceable faculties which cannot flourish in the isolated cell of pure inwardness, but only in live contact with the warmth of things”. Despite its singular and unrepeatable form, Diego Garcia is not a closed book. At every juncture connections are drawn and doors flung open. Political narratives are questioned, social structures reimagined and, in this exhilarating, generous novel, the act of storytelling is made new.
Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams will be in conversation with Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.
The shortlisted books are available to purchase from Bookshop.org here.
[See also: Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams: “Writers are subject to a sustained assault from the political class”]