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.”