In The Nation, Jesse McCarthy surveys the work of French novelist Mathias Énard, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015. Énard, a scholar of Middle Eastern languages who lives and teaches in Barcelona, writes dense, lyrical novels that traverse cultures and regions, especially those on the shores of the Mediterranean. His most recent novel, Compass, was recently published in the United States in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell. As McCarthy writes, Énard's sprawling cosmopolitan novel is heartfelt and impressive, but not without its blindspots. Here's an excerpt:
In Compass, Énard has created a giant fresco, a dream sequence parading the history of cosmopolitan Europe before us. But even as we crane our necks to stare in awe at his creation, it is hard not to notice the cracks in the ceiling, fissures that go right to the foundation and may bring the house down sooner than we think. Houellebecq, for his part, can and will find all his preconceptions and bile reconfirmed every time he turns on the news. His fiction perfectly captures the materially fluid and emotionally abrasive texture of modern life—its violence and sexism, the thinness of its cosmopolitanism and the callousness of its social relations—but he cannot get out of his own head.
Yet what’s remarkable is that both of these major novelists miss the story on their very doorstep, the human face waiting to be recognized. It’s astonishing, for instance, that in Énard’s novel Franz never once meets a Muslim character of any substance living downstairs on his street, operating the cell-phone shop on the corner, standing in line at the grocer’s, going to pray in a mosque tucked discreetly into a former gymnasium or community center. When he and Sarah go to Paris, they visit the tomb of a dead Muslim poet, but there’s no attempt to find the living ones, or to meet a few of the millions of people—many of them crowded into the projects on the far side of the city ramparts—whose lives and futures embody the tradition they are so obsessed with.
Houellebecq has never cared to pen a character that is not basically an alter ego. He complains a good deal about the people who surround him, but for all intents and purposes he has never met them in life, and he cannot bring himself to imagine them in his fiction. Indeed, with the exception of a few groundbreaking writers like Marie NDiaye and Abdellah Taïa, for the most part the novels that actually explore the lives of Muslims living in France have yet to be written.
Image of Mathias Énard via Bookforum.