"The Separation Between Orient and Occident Is Entirely Artificial": An Interview With Mathias Énard

A swarm of people surround Énard after he was announced winner of the Prix Goncourt (2015)
A swarm of people surround Énard after he was announced winner of the Prix Goncourt (2015) | © Etienne Laurent/Epa/REX/Shutterstock (7930387i)

UK Literary Editor

We caught up with the French author—included in our Global Anthology—to speak about his work, Orientalism, and the wonders of Arabic and Persian literature (no less).

If there ever were any doubts about the standing of Mathias Énard, the reception garnered by his latest novel Compass ought to disperse them. After the book won him the Prix Goncourt in 2015, its English translation—out last month—was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize (and garnered glowing reviews in the American press), a distinction outdone days later by the Italian Bussola, which was awarded the von Rezzori prize at the Festival degli Scrittori in Florence. Surely it isn’t premature anymore, or in poor taste, to write what many have for years been thinking: that once again a whole new generation of French writers have their virtuosic frontman?

In Compass, Énard’s long-winded, meticulous artful prose takes the reader on a grand historical tour of the cultural exchanges between Europe and the Middle East. We spend a sleepless night with the thoughts of Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. The narrative follows his memories of travels and studies around the region, coalescing into an enchanting, atmospheric, and deeply erudite whole—marked by the repeated passion-filled appearances of one person in particular: a brilliant academic by the name of Sarah…

I met Mathias Énard during one of London’s more oppressively Mediterranean summer days—not as rare an occurrence as it once was—at the Fitzcarraldo Editions offices in Knightsbridge, after he and publisher Jacques Testard had made the rounds of some of the city’s finer bookshops. It was a few hours before the Man Booker International ceremony, and Énard, with a face adorned by a Socratian ‘U’ of hair and beard, correctly predicted David Grossman’s win (“I think they’ll go for something easier to read”).¹

L-R: the covers of Compass’s American, French and British editions

What pushed you to write this novel, and how did it start?

It’s a project that dates back perhaps even to the time of Zone [Énard’s fourth novel, which came out in 2008]. These stories of the relationship between East and West always interested me, and I’d written back then a small book on the subject—Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants (2010)—which should come out in English soon.

This question of how we saw, we’ve perceived and how we perceive today the Ottoman Empire and its relationship with Europe always fascinated me. And so from there I wondered if I couldn’t write a novel on how we saw, perceived and understood this idea of the Orient—as abstract as it could be, and as diverse as it could be—in Europe. And how, within the great movement we could call Orientalism, there was also something akin to a counter-discourse² which, in the end, profoundly changed Occidental culture. And it’s from there that I started to be interested in Orientalism. And I want to see also how there was this profound transformation of Europe, which we could call an oriental revolution, between the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Edward Said is mentioned a number of times throughout Compass, more than once the subject of heated conversation between academics, and the book does not shy away from arguing against him. Is he such a subject of debate?

Said is someone extremely important who opened, really, a field of research. But the publication of Orientalism was forty years ago. And by the way there’s something strange with Said, in that he never wanted to come back to it: all he did was write an article around the year 2000 on the book’s reception… but nothing else. He himself opened a field of research that he didn’t pursue.

Now, of course, forty years later, with all the research that was done afterwards, we know a lot more about the structure of Orientalism than at the time of Said. And I think that he himself would’ve been very interested by the latest developments and research. How does, in the end, each culture, each language, each university operation create its Orientalism—there isn’t one Orientalism, but dozens, each very different, and there is even an Oriental Orientalism. All things that we owe Said. This question of the relationship between knowledge and power, on the Orient—Said raised it. And as such he is indispensable.

In the novel, the character of Sarah makes what I thought a brilliant, subtle argument on Orientalism, with the claim that Said’s book was partly at fault for reinforcing the same separation between Orient and Occident that it argued against.

That’s the problem, indeed… In creating this object, he also participated in this idea of ‘othering,’ that he himself made, of the Orient. Of course. And undoubtedly a great number of Said’s successors—like, for example, Iranian regime thinkers—who are interested mainly in the political angle, want this separation. They use Edward Said as a weapon of political struggle. And not really, anymore, as part of a heuristic project.

CT: Is there something, then, on the relationship between Orient and Occident that you wanted to get at with this book?

MÉ: I think the separation between Orient and Occident is entirely artificial. And is the product of a view of the world that dates back to the 19th century. And, of course, we have to change that. That doesn’t mean that we’re all the same, but that cultural evolutions happen in the geography, in the very slow crossing of one culture into another. And the way we thought about Islam in the 19th century, as a kind of border, cannot be seen that way today. Because Islam is a part of us: there are probably more Muslims in London than there are in Albania; France and Great Britain are great Muslim countries. So of course it doesn’t make sense anymore to have religion as a border. Borders aren’t at all where we think they are. And so we’ve got to take look at relationships between the East and the West on other principles, like those of the state of rights, cultural exchange, pleasure of others, pleasure of differences, art, literature… which exist, also.

And that’s what’s absolutely paradoxical in this globalized world: a large number of hip young artists are from Algeria today, for example. They’re worshipped. They win prizes in Venice. And so, in the end, it’s like there was an Arab world which we would like to see, fashionable and globalized, at odds with the reality of those territories, which are left behind in a way. But I hope the successes of books like Compass show that many people are interested, want to find a pacified relationship with these regions. Not see exclusively violence and fanaticism, confinement to religion. But, on the contrary, ways of relationship that are more open, interested in the cultural diversity of those regions.

More than just Orient and Orientalism, your work obviously reflects a great interest in—and relationship with—the Middle East. How did that come about?

It started a long time ago: I studied Arabic and Persian at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. And the advantage of going to this university is that we were encouraged to leave it (laughs), and quite fast, to study abroad. And so there were plenty of grants and exchanges available to the Middle East. Quite quickly I went to Egypt, Iran, and then Lebanon and Syria—I spent quite a bit of time in Syria, and then returned to Iran…

But what really fascinated me, immediately, besides the beauty of the Arabic and Persian languages, was the size of their literature. Classical Arabic or Persian literature is thousands of volumes, from a geographical area that goes from Morocco to Indonesia. So it’s pretty impressive when you dive into it, you realize that people were still writing in Arabic or Persian in 19th century central Indian royal courts, or at the same time in Albania, where national poet Naim Frashëri wrote verses in Persian. And there’s also their level of culture and refinement which is absolutely incredible. As well as the great diversity of these regions. In Syria, for example, there’s maybe something like ten different religions, five languages, a history that goes from prehistory to today—all through a late and impressive antiquity—and all in an area that is quite small.

What do you mean by the refinement in literature?

Well, for example, what it means for Persian literature is that it’s exchanged a lot with itself. Which means it created an almost formulaic style (in poetry most notably) that is extraordinarily complex, of games, imagery, handled in an subtle way by brilliant poets. That is to say that there is a succession of ages when a certain kind of imagery is used to write poems, which can seem, from afar, to all look the same—that is, between seven and nine verses, with the name of the poet cited at the end—and at the same time always be different.

There is this adjective—which I find quite magical—people use to describe the poetry, the style, of the great Persian poet Saadi, which is sahl-e-momtane (سهل و ممتنع،), meaning “of an impossible simplicity.” That is, it’s so simple that it’s impossible to imitate. And it’s so simple that it becomes extraordinarily complex. And that’s what’s fascinating: when, sometimes, without a great expenditure of means, we can create extremely complicated things. Or, inversely, that the same can be made with an almost Baroque abundance of elements.

Do you think it’s an influence one can find in your own writing style?

In the prose itself I don’t think so. However, in the idea of a novel as a mélange, something of a hybrid, with very different types of discourse, that I think I owe to Arabic works. Like for example the adab of a great Arabic author named Al-Jahiz—which means in Arabic “the one who has bulging eyes”—and who is one of classical Arabic literature’s greats, which means he wrote around the year 800. He wrote incredible books which always have this mix of anecdotes, tales, verses: poetry, prose, philosophy, thought, what we today would call a short story, etc… The whole blend! And that’s a tradition that existed for hundreds of years in Arabic and Persian which is this tradition of mixing, of compilation.

Music is an integral part of Compass, used to demonstrate the cultural influence of Middle Eastern music on European classical compositions. What attracted you to it?

It is in fact because I’m passionate about music, but without being a musicologist, that this subject interested me. We have an enormous amount of monographs and syntheses for all these Orientalist schools (like painting, for example), analyzing what that particular movement was, whether it be travel tales or translations. For all of those it is very well documented, which isn’t the case with music. And while there are, indeed, very pointed studies on this or that subject, there is no overview of a movement that could be Orientalist. So I was forced to reconstruct all that, and it was extremely interesting to research.

So there was an Orientalist movement in music as well?

Of course! It starts in the 18th century, during the time of what we call the turqueries. With the Ottoman Empire very influential culturally, everyone had a lot of fun à la Turk. Theater plays, for example, had Turkish characters, with turbans, etc… And some music, like operas or sonata movements, also imitated—exotized—Turkish music. The most famous example is Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. Now this musical contact actually came from military music, heard outside of Vienna or in any other battlefield. That is: from the mehter (Janissary military bands) which were unlike anything in the West, because at the time we still didn’t have military music.

And in the 19th century, as contacts become more numerous, we got the first musician-travelers. There’s a whole set of them, but one that is quite fascinating, for example, is a French composer close to the Saint-Simonians, who goes to Egypt and composes an oratorio called The Desert. It introduces, in the middle, a transformation of the Muslim call to prayer, the muezzin. And it’s most likely the first time this call to prayer was heard in Paris—it’s on a theater stage, and sung by a French tenor. And another more famous composer, Berlioz, hears that, and he is fascinated. And it’s without doubt these sounds and orchestral colors which will influence him enormously for the more exotic aspects of his music.

So after these first traveler-musicians there’s more and more, and a few get to transcribing melodies. Notably Arabic melodies in Algeria, which are then spread throughout Europe. And when, for example, Rimsky-Korsakov composes his ‘oriental’ melodies, people thought it was inspired by Russian Central Asia. But actually not at all: he in fact uses melodies transcribed by a French musician in Algeria, whose transcriptions were published in Paris.
¹: The habitual reader will notice that these interview articles tend not to be written in Q&A format. There are rare instances, however, where narrative interviews are detrimental to the quality of the answers. This is one of them.
²: Counter-discourse is important to the author’s ‘updated’ view of Orientalism, and originates in the work of Foucault. Énard defines it like this: “It’s true Orientalism creates a discourse, what Said calls ‘othering,’ but there is also that counter-discourse that is very present and which also transforms European culture by injecting ‘otherness’. […] The Romantic revolution was the desire to make a clean sweep, to transform the ways of thinking, creating, writing, speaking, and making music. And these people find in the Middle East, in the translations of Persian, Arabic, Turkish literature, in music, in Indian thoughts, matter to effect this European transformation they’re pushing for.”
Read an excerpt from Mathias Énard’s ‘Zone’, part of our Global Anthology, here.

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