• 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…
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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?