France’s top literary award, the Goncourt Prize, was awarded on Nov. 3 to the novelist Mathias Énard for his novel, La Boussole, or “The Compass.”
In this, his latest novel, the Barcelona-based Énard, who is also a scholar of Arabic and Persian, addresses the fraught relationship between the West and the Islamic world—a relationship that reached a tragically tangible dimension last Friday in Paris.
Énard is not the first or the only French writer to tackle this theme. Michel Houellebecq, previously a Goncourt Prix recipient, also explored the tensions between French society and Islam in his novel Soumission, which was coincidentally issued the same week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Houellebecq’s Soumission cleverly claims that anti-immigration demagogues should be grouped on the same side as the Islamists. But where Houellbecq is intent on exposing the hypocrisy embedded in France’s xenophobic stance towards immigrants and Islam, Énard’s novel reveals the subtler but richer side of the Middle East and its benevolent influence on Western thought and culture—a small counterweight, one might hope, to the escalating tensions between secular France and its Muslim commmunity?
Praised as a “ poetic eulogy,” and “erudite,” La Boussole benefits from Énard’s extensive and scholarly knowledge of the Middle East, offering a different perspective of the Muslim world told from the point of view of an outsider kindly reflecting on his travels and memories of the Middle East.
While many have viewed the Académie Goncourt’s decision to be a symbolic gesture of France’s shifting attitude towards the Islamic world post-Charlie Hebdo, it may be time to look more closely at what Énard’s book has achieved by presenting the subtler and more culturally rich side of the Middle East and its benevolent influence on Western thought and culture.
The novel centers around the aging Franz Mitter, an Austrian musicologist fighting insomnia brought on by an unspecified but alarming and distressing disease. As he lies awake, Mitter begins to reflect on his past, which takes him through old memories of his university studies, favorite musicians and writers, and even his unrequited love for a Frenchwoman named Sarah. At university, Mitter and Sarah studied together and shared a mutual love of Eastern art and culture, a turning point in Mitter’s life. As he battles insomnia following the bad medical news, it is memories of the East that soothe and comfort him.
With his ingenuous literary device of ruminations and memories poetically felt and described, Enard creates a rich, textured reality for the reader that is not shown in the media. There’s no political agenda, no obsession with ISIS, and no incessant chatter about Islam’s incompatibility with Western notions of liberalism and freedom.
Instead, a different portrait of the Muslim world emerges, one unencumbered by fanatics and the violence they perpetuate.
At the Goncourt ceremony, the president of the Académie Goncourt, Bernard Pivot, said, “A good Goncourt [Prize-winning novel] opens for the reader an unexpected door, even if it cannot be easily opened.” It was a gentle reminder that the door to understanding the Muslim world must be forced open rather than closed.
One hopes that La Boussole can push that door open a little more and a little more permanently.