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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Cap vers l’Orient pour le Goncourt

by Sophie Joubert

Mathieu Énard’s {Compass}, Winner Of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Points East

The impressive achievement of a great orientalist

Translated Sunday 8 November 2015, by Isabelle Métral

Who better than Mathias Énard, the 43-year-old translator from Arabic and Farsi and great connoisseur of the Middle-East, could embody the solidarity with the Muslim world and emancipation from the Western ethnocentric outlook the Goncourt jury sails by?

Boussole, by Mathias Énard, Actes Sud, 400 pages

Énard’s Boussole (Compass) resolutely points east. “Incredible! I am just back from Algiers and Beirut, I am simply delighted!” Mathias Énard said on arriving at the Drouant restaurant, the traditional setting for the Goncourt prize ceremony. Who better than Mathias Énard, the 43-year-old translator from Arabic and Farsi and great connoisseur of the Middle-East, could embody the solidarity with the Muslim world and emancipation from the Western ethnocentric outlook the Goncourt jury sails by? Their choice of the Bardo museum in Tunis where a terrible terrorist attempt took place in March was definitely a strong signal. Énard’s competitors, namely Hédi Kaddour, Tobie Nathan, Nathalie Azoulai, also have ties with that region. “To some degree all of us are Orientals,” Mathias Énard confided in an interview published by l’Humanité in the late summer (Aug 27, 2015).

Boussole is in a way a political manifesto; “unfortunately,” he conceded, it was “daily undermined by terrible war news” even as he was writing it. “But it was necessary to reaffirm that Islam or the Orient are not reducible to that blind stupidity,” he added. “Fear blinds us to the Muslim part in each of us.”

The structure of the 2015 Goncourt prize-winner is reminiscent of The Thousand and One Nights.

The novel opens up a world in itself. It is built like The Thousand and One Nights, a favourite of the author’s when a child, which sparked his long-lasting fascination for the Orient, a fascination that was no compliance to fashion. Already in 2003, his first novel la Perfection du tir (Right On Target) was set in a country that was strongly reminiscent of Lebanon. Boussole forms a triptych with Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants (Entertain Them With Battles, Kings and Elephants) –winner of the Secondary Schools’ Goncourt prize in 2010 – which broached the theme of orientalism as an artistic period through the figure of Michelangelo, while in Rue des voleurs (Thieves Street), Énard focused on youth in the Arab world and in Europe.

The main action of Boussole takes place during the long night of insomnia of a valetudinarian musician, the bashful lover of a university celebrity. Pent up in his room in Vienna, Frantz remembers his travels with the beautiful Sarah in the footsteps of orientalists, musicians, scientists, painters or novelists. “All the famous figures from the past are real, even if many of them are little known,” Mathias Énard confided. A love story that throws a bridge between Tristan and Isolde and Layla’s Fool, the portrait of a powerful woman, Boussole is also the great novel of science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It took the author five years to channel an enormous mass of documents, and his master achievement is that readers never find it indigestible.

By turning to the Orient, the jury has rewarded the ambitious works of a novelist. In view of the promotion of Boussole, Énard has grown sideburns that give him a neo-Balzacian look. And a new Balzac he has indeed been hailed by the press. If the unflagging rhythm and breadth of his prose does put him on a par with Balzac, Énard is not content with bringing back to life models set by predecessors. A member of the "Incultes" group (The Uneducated) [1], he has devised new forms. Readers of Zone (winner of the Inter prize in 2009) marveled at the long single sentence that unfurls along the Milan to Rome line, and the breathless dive into the mind of a secret service agent that has been a witness to a century of wars in Europe. Boussole displays the same virtuoso breadth, plus a musical dimension: time flows by physiologically, it seems, and as though to the rhythm of a metronome. “Once you’ve found a cadre, a novelistic mechanism, you can put anything you want into it, including scientific articles, illustrations, dramatic dialogues..,” he said to our interviewer, adding that he was looking forward to a 2.0 novel with sound and picture, only in a paper version.

By looking to the Orient, the Goncourt jury has rewarded an ambitious, learned, and enthralling book that remains accessible from first to last . This is very good news for us readers, and for literature.

[1A group of innovative and undogmatic writers of the younger generation, it has brought attention to itself with remarkable publications. After publishing a literary and philosophical quaterly from 2004 to 2011, it now publishes studies in book format.

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