Mathias Énard is not by any means a household name, but he is increasingly viewed in France as one of the country’s foremost novelists. Born in 1972 in the small southwestern town of Niort, Énard originally planned on studying art history and attended the prestigious École du Louvre in Paris. A nascent interest in Islamic art and literature led him to study Persian and then Arabic at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, a change of course that sent him on a long series of travels across the Middle East before he eventually took up a position teaching Arabic at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
In 2003, Énard published his first novel, La Perfection du Tir (which one could translate as The Sniper Prepares). A tense and unsettling portrait of a gunman in an unnamed war-torn city that could be Beirut (but also, just as convincingly, Sarajevo), it reminded Énard’s French readers of the eurozone’s proximity to, and complicity in, the many ethnic and religious animosities roiling just beneath the surface of the ostensibly harmonious trade bloc piloted by Brussels. Since then, he has published four more novels and a handful of novellas, as well as translations of classic Persian and contemporary Arabic poetry.
Énard is best known for his sprawling, violent 2008 novel Zone. Written as one unbroken, amphetamine-addled sentence stretched across a canvas of some 500 pages, Zone rummages through the mind of its narrator, Francis Mirkovic, an intelligence agent with a past, who is traveling by train from Milan to Rome with a dossier he intends to deliver to the Vatican that catalogs evidence of war crimes committed throughout the 1990s in the Balkans. Ranging across the Mediterranean—the titular “zone”—Énard weaves geography and history together in a manner worthy of the French historian Fernand Braudel, and he does so while pitching the reader ever forward into a confessional of violence and alienation reminiscent of William Burroughs.
Presenting a nightmarish vision of post–Cold War Europe, Zone was unabashedly epic in scope and high-modernist in execution. Justly hailed by critics at home and abroad, it cemented Énard’s reputation as a novelist with major ambitions who was operating at the height of his powers.
After Zone, Énard did not let up. In 2010, he published a new novel, Rue des Voleurs, which moved his focus away from the northern ridge of the “zone” to its lower, southern half. (Rue was translated into English by Charlotte Mandell and published by Open Letters as Street of Thieves in 2014.) Following Lakhdar, a young Moroccan from Tangier, Street of Thieves continued to explore the portents of violence just beneath the surface and the different valences of cultural identity and belonging found on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. As with so many of Énard’s characters, Lakhdar is a voracious and omnivorous reader. Language and the world of letters destabilize him and open him up to new horizons. In a statement that echoes Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Lakhdar declares a credo that Énard himself might espouse: “I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have within me as much Arabic as Spanish and French, I have multiplied myself in these mirrors to the point of losing myself or constructing myself, a fragile image, an image in movement.”
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This “image in movement,” a picture of the destructive and creative possibilities forged by the Mediterranean “zone,” is not just a literary device for Énard; it can be found in his personality and public persona. He has spent his own life moving from one end of the zone to the other, without entirely giving up the French language or his attachment to its literary traditions. His manner is soft-spoken and gentle, but he is also gregarious, gestural, and charismatic. One can easily picture him sitting at a café table in Algiers or even running a small Lebanese restaurant, as he in fact did for several years in Barcelona, the city that he now calls home and where he has written all of his books.
The image of Énard as a voyaging romantic is perhaps helped by the fact that he is physically striking, almost Dickensian in appearance: a man of diminutive and compact build, whose tangled curls and receding hairline frame a pair of unruly sideburns more reminiscent of Stendhal than a 21st-century writer taking on the challenges of a world enthralled by Google and ISIS. Énard can seem in his very person to be somehow seeking to contain and resolve the apparent contradictions, the dislocations of place, the fractures of culture and historical frames. Can one person, through the force of erudition and poetic sensibility, turn literature into a healing salve—one that we can all believe in? With humanitarian crises and terrorist mayhem delivering fresh horror in the daily news, the prospects appear daunting. Yet this is precisely the wager that Mathias Énard has taken up.
Énard’s new novel, Compass, just published in the United States in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell, came out in France at the height of a bloody and destabilizing year for the country. On January 7, 2015, gunmen affiliated with Al Qaeda in Yemen assassinated members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff in the heart of Paris and later terrorized a kosher supermarket; then, in March, ISIS-inspired terrorists killed 21 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.
In a gesture of solidarity and defiance of the terrorist threat, the jury for the 2015 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, decided to announce that year’s finalists, which included Compass, at the Bardo museum. One week later, on November 3, it was officially announced that Énard had won. In France, literary prizes are still followed with the kind of media blitz and fanfare that normally accompany movie festivals. For Énard, there was little time to celebrate: Just 10 days later, France saw the worst bloodshed on its soil since the turmoil of the Algerian War, when a team of ISIS commandos sent from Syria detonated suicide vests, shot up café terraces, and massacred concertgoers they had taken hostage at the Bataclan theater. At the same time, the surge of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the sea into Europe reached catastrophic proportions, with hundreds drowning by the month.
This atmosphere of tension and spectacular cruelty directly informs the pages of Énard’s crepuscular narrative, which is set in the immediate present of 2014–15, with the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State as its backdrop. The plot of Compass is really more of a frame, an anchoring point for a series of loosely strung, impressionistic fugues that follow the streams of thought of one man over a single night. Our hero is Franz Ritter, a middling Franco-Austrian musicologist living in Vienna. Ritter suffers from a grave but unnamed illness, and with a good deal on his mind, he reflects on his unremarkable but well-traveled career as an academic. He also considers his fledgling love affair with Sarah, another unspecified member of the contemporary academy (her dissertation’s title is “Visions of the Other Between East and West”) who shares his passion for pursuing the obscure and forgotten translators, poets, and spies who—not unlike Franz and Sarah themselves—have, throughout history, gone flitting to and from the region’s old cities like Istanbul, Damascus, and Aleppo, cross-pollinating their cultural contacts along the way.
Chapters divide the night into bouts of insomniac reverie, as Franz fidgets and bumps about an apartment stuffed with books and mementos, piecing together for us the phases of his romantic pursuit of Sarah, while indulging in an uninterrupted cavalcade of soliloquies and scholarly sidebars, including several chapters from a hypothetical essay, “On the divers forms of lunacie [sic] in the Orient.” By dawn, Franz will have looked up old e-mails, consulted journal articles, listened to the radio, and compulsively refreshed his inbox far too often in the hopes of getting word from Sarah, who is conducting her research on the other side of the world.
Énard’s style is difficult to place, shifting through registers that shade romantic and even baroque, but are often tinged with ironic doses of self-mockery. This tonal play can be difficult to parse even in the French, and Charlotte Mandell is brilliant at finding solutions to bring these subtleties into English, though the overall effect is a kind of detachment and coolness less evident in the original. Énard’s subject matter, after all, is deeply erotic, and his prose in the French strives to intoxicate, to inundate the reader with particulars.
Of the four major cities that Franz and Sarah explore together, and that Franz recounts on his sleepless night in Vienna, the most intensely realized love scene takes place in Tehran. “The gliding automobiles, the smells of tar, rice and saffron that are the odor of Iran,” Franz tells us after describing their encounter, will be “forever associated, for me, with the salty, rainy taste of Sarah’s skin.”
While Énard limits the book’s frame to Franz’s recollections, he also occasionally moves outside them with Sebaldian insertions that feel more like hyperlinks, as Franz absentmindedly pulls up Sarah’s old articles from his hard drive and treats us to facsimiles of academic jargon, reproductions of postcards, and frontispieces to Goethe and Balzac. Presumably, the upshot for Énard in making his narrator an academic is that it’s a useful contrivance for dredging up the literary arcana and necessarily minor figures who populate his area of inquiry (we learn about the spy and explorer Alois Musil, cousin to the novelist Robert Musil, and the orientalist polymath Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall; we are also introduced to the Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat and the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab). These excurses in Énard’s field of expertise also allow the narration to oscillate between the first person and a more scholarly, invitational “we” that, one suspects, is supposed to include Énard and his readers.
But there is an obvious downside here as well. Even if one is willing to suspend one’s frustration at being made to feel ignorant, there’s the added unkindness of being stranded in a room with a pedant. Franz has an irrepressible fondness for the sound of his own voice. It’s insufferable to have to listen to a man prone to saying things like “life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps”; it becomes intolerable once you realize this man is going to talk to himself all night, and it’s not yet one in the morning! True, Énard is mostly poking fun at the self-important gassiness of contemporary academia, and yes, everything suggests he is well aware that this is a wild fantasy of academic life bearing not the slightest resemblance to the real thing. But that still leaves it as an inside joke, and Franz Ritter, while occasionally droll, is not a sparkling wit.
One begins to get the sense that there’s another game at play, one that was perhaps not Énard’s intention when he set out to write Compass, but that a reader can’t resist surmising in the wake of its publication. Outwardly, Énard’s Franz Ritter has a lot in common with François, the hero of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, which appeared early in 2015. Both men are undistinguished, middle-aged academics; both maintain a keen interest in unlocking the potential of the Orient. Both desire some kind of deliverance from women, something beyond sex but also resolutely and insistently related to it. In Houellebecq’s novel, women are emotional and sexual dead ends: François experiences his girlfriend as a source of indifference and sexual despair, and finds release in the company of sex workers; he also finds his mother’s death barely worth mentioning. Franz is just the opposite, in this and many other ways: Sarah is his passport to the world, to further knowledge, an almost ludicrously erotic vessel for what are primarily his own needs and realizations.
Both writers seem aware of the awkward limitations of this kind of female essentializing, but it doesn’t exactly deter either of them. And while Houellebecq’s François is far more repugnant, he is also a much more believable representative of the kind of reactionary mind-set that Énard is trying bravely—but, one feels, a bit abstractly—to refute. Houellebecq’s “depressive realism,” as the critic Ben Jeffery has called it, may be about as appealing as paint thinner, but it is also a solvent that quickly exposes all the hollow bits that come with Énard’s brand of idealism.
The contrast between the two writers is hard to overstate. Where Houellebecq’s prose is famously clinical and cunning, Énard’s tends toward inflation and mannerism, as though puffing itself up to handle a burdensome but heroic act of diplomacy. He writes passionately, with a boundless faith that the accumulated wisdom of centuries of learning, art, music, and philosophy on all sides of the Mediterranean zone will prevail over the desiccated vision of Islamists and ethno-nationalists of all stripes. In a 2016 interview with the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, in an exchange about stereotypes of Islam in the media, Énard invoked the eighth-century poet Abû Nuwâs, a Walt Whitman–esque figure of the classical Arabic tradition, who celebrated “liberty, humor, drunkenness…. That, too, is in Islam today,” Énard insisted, “but it has to hide itself the most, so we see it the least.”
It’s the kind of statement that Houellebecq has no truck with, and he is hardly alone. For the French, the clash between the two writers reads like a Rorschach test for the left- and right-wing reactions to several decades of jihadist violence: half the country in thrall to the fantasy of throwing an undefined “immigrant” population out, and the other half, stunned and wounded by vicious acts of terror, still struggling to reverse the trend of half a century of failed integration.
Which side Énard is on is clear enough, but how his work might serve as a guide is less so. It’s not easy to find a solid plank for the reader to rest upon amid all the geographical and cultural disorientation in Compass. Believe it or not, tucked away in the pocket of Énard’s novel are not one but two compasses. The first is a replica of the compass that Beethoven is said to have carried around with him on his walks, which Franz has bought as a souvenir and left unattended on his bookshelf. The second is a symbolic one that he has come to appreciate from his travels in the Muslim world, and it points to the powerful geographic imaginary of Dar al-Islam:
in Muslim hotels they stick a little compass for you into the wood of the bed, or they draw a wind rose that can indeed serve to locate the Arabian peninsula, but also, if you’re so inclined, Rome, Vienna, or Moscow: you’re never lost in these lands. I even saw some prayer rugs with a little compass woven into them, carpets you immediately wanted to set flying, since they were so prepared for aerial navigation.
It’s an irresistible conceit, and one can see why it immediately appeals to Énard, who has built all of his books, like a latter-day Ibn Battuta, out of repeated circuits, voyages of circumambulation, with the purpose of knowing each time something more of the world and yet revealing to his readers what they have long not known.
But compasses are not the flexible devices that Énard depicts or perhaps wishes them to be: They may be open to interpretation, but they nonetheless reflect an unmoving geography. The impediments that ordinary people face when determining their own course in the face of rigidly prescribed doctrines are very real. Does knowing that our sense of orientation comes not from the East or the West, but from some kind of intermediate Mediterranean zone in which both interact, help to liberate us? Isn’t this cross-cultural inheritance as much to blame for our violent times as anything else? Can we shed our marks of identity (to borrow a phrase from the late Juan Goytisolo, another drifter in the zone) without fueling more hatred and confusion, the existential violence of alienation?
Cultural mutations are unpredictable and not always benign, after all, and they can sometimes create violent counterreactions. As Franz mulls over the strange case of the orientalists hired by the Austrians and Germans in 1914 to help incite jihad against England, he observes that even Islamic jihad is “another horrible thing constructed by both East and West…at first sight an idea that’s as foreign, external, exogenous as possible,” but that is in fact “a long and strange collective movement, the synthesis of an atrocious, cosmopolitan history.”
Énard hopes that his novel will offer an alternative kind of cosmopolitanism. Literature, he believes, can be something of a universal translator for the heart, recognizing how essential the discovery and exchange of beauty between people and cultures are to their mutual creation. But the poetry of his vision has its blind spots. And in France, across Europe, and farther afield, the blind spots of those of us for whom the wealth of the world is tangible in cheap airfare and study abroad and transnational business opportunities are being called out. Without some decisive change in social outlook and a reordering of the priorities of political economy, the contours of the present crisis will harden.
In Compass, Énard has created a giant fresco, a dream sequence parading the history of cosmopolitan Europe before us. But even as we crane our necks to stare in awe at his creation, it is hard not to notice the cracks in the ceiling, fissures that go right to the foundation and may bring the house down sooner than we think. Houellebecq, for his part, can and will find all his preconceptions and bile reconfirmed every time he turns on the news. His fiction perfectly captures the materially fluid and emotionally abrasive texture of modern life—its violence and sexism, the thinness of its cosmopolitanism and the callousness of its social relations—but he cannot get out of his own head.
Yet what’s remarkable is that both of these major novelists miss the story on their very doorstep, the human face waiting to be recognized. It’s astonishing, for instance, that in Énard’s novel Franz never once meets a Muslim character of any substance living downstairs on his street, operating the cell-phone shop on the corner, standing in line at the grocer’s, going to pray in a mosque tucked discreetly into a former gymnasium or community center. When he and Sarah go to Paris, they visit the tomb of a dead Muslim poet, but there’s no attempt to find the living ones, or to meet a few of the millions of people—many of them crowded into the projects on the far side of the city ramparts—whose lives and futures embody the tradition they are so obsessed with.
Houellebecq has never cared to pen a character that is not basically an alter ego. He complains a good deal about the people who surround him, but for all intents and purposes he has never met them in life, and he cannot bring himself to imagine them in his fiction. Indeed, with the exception of a few groundbreaking writers like Marie NDiaye and Abdellah Taïa, for the most part the novels that actually explore the lives of Muslims living in France have yet to be written.
One hopes that they will be soon, and that the best of Énard’s encyclopedic vision of a truly interwoven Mediterranean will eventually prevail. But I will confess for my part that, as I gaze warily at the events unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic, it is neither Franz Ritter nor Houellebecq’s misanthropic François who seems to capture the spirit of the times. Rather, we must look to Énard’s earlier creation, the haunted Francis Mirkovic, whose flight from the nightmare of history and all of Europe’s bloody fault lines is suspended at Zone’s close as he sits on a bench in the Roma Termini station. Énard ends the book with quiet words that offer no hope of redemption, just the fear of living on borrowed time. Time for a shared cigarette, Mirkovic tells us, “one last smoke before the end of the world.”