Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient voted best Man Booker Prize winner in 50 years

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient has been voted the greatest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize during five decades of the prestigious literary award.

Novel written by Toronto-based author about love and conflict during WW2 also adapted into Oscar-winning film

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient won the Man Booker Prize in 1992 and has been voted the greatest-ever winner during five decades of the prestigious literary award. (Vintage Canada/Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient was named the greatest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize at an event Sunday celebrating five decades of the prestigious literary award.

The Canadian writer's tale of love and conflict during World War II was awarded the Golden Man Booker Prize for fiction after winning a public vote.

The English Patient won the Booker in 1992 and was made into a 1996 movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche that won nine Academy Awards. 

It beat four other novels in an online poll that drew 9,000 votes in all. Organizers didn't give a breakdown of votes for the books, each of which represented one of five decades.

A panel of judges selected five books from among the 51 winners of the Booker, a prize that has boosted the careers of writers such as Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy and Kazuo Ishiguro.

The 1970s finalist was In a Free State by Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul, while Moon Tiger by British writer Penelope Lively was the 1980s contender. Hilary Mantel's Tudor saga Wolf Hall and George Saunders' U.S. Civil War symphony Lincoln in the Bardo were the finalists from the 2000s and 2010s.

The Toronto-based Ondaatje said he did not believe "for a second" that his book was the best of the bunch. He paid tribute to the late The English Patient film director, Anthony Minghella, "who I suspect had something to do with the result of this vote."

Novelist Kamila Shamsie, one of the judges, said Ondaatje's book combined "extraordinary" language, a plot tinged with mystery and compelling characters, including a Canadian nurse, an Indian bomb-disposal expert, a thief-turned-spy and an aristocratic Hungarian archaeologist.

Shamsie said Ondaatje's novel, published at a time when "borders seemed much more assured," had a different resonance in the current climate, amid "anxieties about borders and anxiety about migrants and other people."

"We've all read lots of books about the Second World War. We think of it, with good reason, as the good war," she said.

"And I think it is really brave and remarkable the way he goes into that story and says war is trauma, and war is about separating people by nations when there are so many other reasons for them to be together," she added.

Founded in 1969, the Man Booker prize was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers, but eligibility was expanded in 2014 to all English-language novelists.

Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka in 1943, moved to England in the early 1950s and came to Canada in 1962.

After studying at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Que., and receiving degrees from the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., Ondaatje got his start as a professor.

His writing career took off with a number of poetry collections and his 1970 poetry-prose book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which earned him his first of several Governor General's Literary Awards

Ondaatje became the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize sharing the 1992 prize with British author Barry Unsworth and his historical novel Sacred Hunger. Ondaatje's The English Patient also won a Governor General's Literary Award.

Ondaatje has had a diverse career that's earned him a plethora of honours, which also include the Scotiabank Giller Prize and distinction as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

His latest novel is Warlight, which was released in May and follows two siblings separated from their parents in London in 1945.