Arab world looms large in French prize-winning works

Author Mathias Enard (left, holding his book, Boussole) won the Goncourt Prize for his work which explores cultural exchanges between East and West. The novel 2084 by Algerian writer Boualem Sansal (above left) is a dystopian tale set in a totalitari
Author Mathias Enard (above, holding his book, Boussole) won the Goncourt Prize for his work which explores cultural exchanges between East and West. PHOTO: REUTERS
Author Mathias Enard (left, holding his book, Boussole) won the Goncourt Prize for his work which explores cultural exchanges between East and West. The novel 2084 by Algerian writer Boualem Sansal (above left) is a dystopian tale set in a totalitari
The novel 2084 by Algerian writer Boualem Sansal (above left) is a dystopian tale set in a totalitarian Islamic caliphate and Les Preponderants by Hedi Kaddour (above right) is about a Hollywood film crew making a movie in an unnamed North African country under French colonial rule. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Well before tensions between France's Muslim and non-Muslim populations rose in response to the terrorist attacks last month, the Islamic world had been looming large in French literature this season - a sign of the powerful influence the Middle East and North Africa play in the nation's cultural imagination.

Three of the four novels shortlisted last October for France's most prestigious book award, the Goncourt Prize, concern the Arab world.

A fifth novel, 2084, a dystopian tale set in a totalitarian Islamic caliphate by Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is a bestseller. The books have also won an array of other awards.

These novels have captivated a country grappling with its identity and its vexed history as a colonial power and show how France is pulled today between nostalgia for its past and fear for its future.

"French literature is very political this year, very open to the world, after being closed in on itself," said Eric Naulleau, a cultural commentator and a book critic for Le Point, a Paris weekly. "It's the result of the period of tension that we're living in."

Sansal's 2084 contrasts sharply with this year's Goncourt winner, Boussole (Compass), a bestseller by French novelist Mathias Enard that is an erudite exploration of centuries of cultural exchange between East and West.

In a country that takes literary prizes seriously, the announcement of the Goncourt winner in Paris last month was broadcast on national television and Enard needed police escort to navigate past the press.

In a clear political statement, the Goncourt jury had announced the four finalists at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, where terrorists killed 22 people in March.

Sansal's novel is set in 2084, in the fictional nation of Abistan, and tells the story of a man who begins to question the underpinnings of the form of Islam that holds the country in a fierce totalitarian sway.

It is a barely veiled critique of the military dictatorship in Algeria, where, since the 1980s, Islamism has been on the rise.

Sansal, 67, said he had looked to Afghanistan, Algeria and Libya to create Abistan.

"I told my friends, one day someone should write about 2084, like Orwell's 1984, to explain how an Islamist dictatorship comes about," he said. With the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL, "we've seen it materialise in a surreal way," he said, "so I had to write a book very quickly."

Compared with the bleak future of 2084, Enard's Boussole finds more affirmative cultural exchanges in the past. It is told as the opium-fuelled reflections of Franz Ritter, a musicologist in today's Vienna, where, centuries ago, Western forces pushed back Ottoman armies. As he looks back on his life and on the woman he loved, Sarah, a scholar of the Middle East, he thinks back to visits to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

"The book has a melancholic tone because it's a Viennese nocturne," Enard, 43, said. "I'm not especially nostalgic, but today, the Middle East is in flames and, obviously, to talk about Syria becomes a bit of a lamentation because the situation in Syria today is absolutely terrifying, and when we think back a few years ago to what it could have been, it's sad."

The novel will be published by New Directions in an English translation next fall.

Another Goncourt finalist, Les Preponderants, which loosely translates as The Ruling Class, is a co-winner of the Academie Francaise's top prize this year, along with 2084.

Cinematic in scope, with multiple intertwined narratives, the novel is set in the Roaring Twenties, when a Hollywood film crew comes to make a movie in an unnamed North African country under French colonial rule, upsetting the power balance between the colonisers and the colonised and challenging the prevailing conservative social norms.

Its Franco-Tunisian author, Hedi Kaddour, 70, who lives in Paris, said he did not just want to depict a confrontation between the North African Arabs and their French rulers, but also wanted to add the Americans, so that "I have a third point of view - I have another world," he said.

The book is to be published by Yale University Press in an English translation in 2017.

This year's Medicis Prize, a French literary award, went to another Goncourt shortlist finalist, Titus N'Aimait Pas Berenice, or Titus Didn't Love Berenice, by French novelist Nathalie Azoulai, 49.

It is a contemporary love story interwoven with references to the characters in Racine's play Berenice, about the Roman emperor Titus, who declines to marry the woman he loves, Berenice, the queen of Palestine, in order to rule his empire.

Also on the Goncourt shortlist was Ce Pays Qui Te Ressemble, or This Country That Resembles You, a sometimes comic novel set in the Jewish community of Cairo between the 1920s and the rise to power of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s.

It was written by Tobie Nathan, 67, a writer and ethno-psychiatrist who left Egypt for France in 1957.

Kaddour said he believed France's colonial past would continue to haunt it.

"It's a history that is very complicated, a mix of tragedy and the grotesque, like all histories," he said. "And it is one from which we haven't yet escaped."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'Arab world looms large in French prize-winning works'. Print Edition | Subscribe