By Aysegul Sert
Mathias Énard, the winner of France’s prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, sits down for an exclusive interview with Newsweek Middle East
French novelist Mathias Énard is back in Paris late one morning, exhaustion curling the lines of his round face, a few days after the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13th. The worst assault on French soil since World War II had claimed the lives of 130 people, and wounded more than 350.
“I’m struggling to understand how someone in his twenties comes to the decision to wear a belt of explosives and to detonate it after killing dozens with a Kalashnikov,” says Énard. “The aftermath is a feeling of deep sadness that lingers. To return to Paris days later…” He stops speaking, breathes heavily. “These neighborhoods (10th and 11th Arrondissements), I know them well, I spend a lot of my time there when I’m in the city. What’s atrociously maddening is the absence of meaning in all this; people fire the weapons of war on unarmed people, without knowing or caring whom they hit.”
Ten days prior to that dark night of mayhem, Énard received the brightest news of his career: he was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor, for his novel Boussole (Compass). The novel was published in French in August and is now being translated into over 15 languages, including English and Arabic. The shortlist of four contenders for the prize—whose works touch on the tumultuous dialogue between East and West—was announced by the jury at Tunis’ Bardo Museum, where terrorism had taken the lives of 23 people in March.
“Violence has nothing to do with literature,” affirms Énard, “unless you get a paper cut while turning the pages,” he muses. “Homer’s Iliad is the pedestal of literature, is a tale of war and of extraordinary brutality, but it channels that violence into something transformative.”
Curiosity about mankind’s savagery is a basic theme in the 43-year-old’s oeuvre. In 2003 his first novel, La Perfection du tir, told the story of a sniper during a civil war in an unnamed country in the Middle East. Zone, published in 2008, the author’s first novel to be translated in English, included a single sentence that ran through 517 pages about Western cruelty. Boussole, his tenth book, took over three years to craft; it recounts the story of Franz Ritter, an Austrian musicologist, an insomniac under the influence of opium. After being diagnosed with an illness, he recalls his travels in the heartland of the Middle East and his love for Sarah, his ideal woman.
“My hope is that by the time the reader puts the novel back on a shelf that he or she feels like it was a journey worth taking, filled with discoveries of new things or of things known yet forgotten, and that he or she finds in the prose a taste of the Orient.”
This heir to the legacy of Edward Said’s Orientalism traces a plot that spans Vienna, Istanbul, Tehran and Palmyra, and builds the writing on landscapes he passed through in life. The author first traveled to the Middle East in 1991, to Lebanon, then to Egypt in 1993. He studied Islamic art, Arabic, and Persian in school. He lived in Beirut and in Damascus, three years in each. He dedicated Boussole to the Syrian people.
“It’s an immense tragedy, it’s the martyrdom of a people. Bashar Al Assad emptied Syria of its inhabitants, and there is no conceivable solution in the near future,” says Énard. “The region has known many conflicts, but there seemed to be the possibility of a new chapter opening up and that some sort of peace could be installed. Instead more war, and a deepening refugee crisis surfaced; it was all handled very poorly, and we opted to turn a blind eye.”
Boussole is an exploration of what constitutes a frontier, on a physical and philosophical level. “A single space can be the crossroads of many frontiers,” says the author. While talking, he slowly traces with his index finger the contours of an imaginary map on a wooden table. “Let’s take the example of the frontier between Islam and Christianity today: Through what does the frontier pass? The Balkans are in Europe but it’s a very mixed place with three countries that have a majority of Muslims: Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania. Then there is the issue of Islam in Europe—where do we place these people in this? And then there are frontiers between majority and minority, of precise geography and population. The same place can incorporate several frontiers, and herein lies its cultural richness.”
Outside the window, yellow leaves blanket a garden. Occasionally a familiar face walks by and Énard tilts his head in a sign of hello. An electric heater glows in this beautiful old building of the prestigious publishing house Actes Sud.
“Growing up, I was taken by this obsession with travel—one day I’d see faraway lands. The chance of existence allowed me to live and travel in the Middle East for several years. My wife is Catalan, so when we moved to Barcelona in 2000, I felt like it was an extension of this exploration; Barcelona is tied to the Mediterranean, very close to the Algerian coast, and also to France. I don’t live in a place where my mother tongue is spoken, but that allows me to feel close to my other interests.”
Born on the western coast of France, on the shores of the Atlantic, Énard in childhood found infinite possibilities in books as opposed to the sameness of the provincial town. He left France in his early 20s. “France has changed, in the same way that Europe has changed,” he says. “I have a relationship that could be likened to the one of a stranger or a tourist. When I am in Paris I wander for hours, and as I go along I discover it all over again.”
Énard’s is a morning muse. “When I work on a novel, I inhabit the book. I often begin the novel by writing the end. Only then do I trace my way back. I like knowing from the get-go where I am going to end up.”
There are some days, he says, where one is a believer, and on such days, one’s being fills with hope. “These days aren’t so,” he exclaims. “When such horror shadows the world, a sentiment of doubt overtakes me, and it takes a moment before I find hope again, continually passing across these specters of contradictory emotions.”
He folds his burgundy-colored scarf, and unfolds it soon after. “We can be done with Daesh if we gave ourselves the tools to do so. They haven’t been here for long, I’m not certain that they are convinced of their own existence. They are pirates—pirates who created their own little understanding of a caliphate. There was a void and they seized it. They created this illusion of an empire in which what they only care for is power, money, women, and weapons. Religion, they couldn’t care less about, that’s just decor to them.”
In April, PEN American Center gave the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after the January terrorist attacks that killed several of its staff for allegedly disrespecting Islam by drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The decision stirred controversy as some writers argued that the magazine encourages “cultural intolerance.” “It was courageous of PEN to stay true to their core mission and award people who put their lives in the line of danger for freedom of expression,” says Énard. “I personally don’t think that everything should be said, but we must have the freedom to do so if we wish. Religion is texts, symbols, and images available to all. Religion is not people.”
Énard contemplates the moment of silence that follows and breaks it with a statement of faith. “We desperately need literature, perhaps now more than ever before. Literature allows us to take a moment to think. We are surrounded by endless feeds of information and images; literature invites us to slow down and look at matters differently. Every book offers a new vision of the world; where else could one find such diversity? Literature is the learning of liberty.”