Mathias Énard, a decorated French novelist and a former lecturer in Arabic at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, probably wouldn’t like to be called an Orientalist. (Nobody does since Edward Said put the field to rout a generation ago.) Yet he inherits from the discipline not only its seemingly limitless purview—poetry, geopolitics, philology; Beirut, Borneo, the Balkans—but also the zany amplitude of activity that characterized its leading figures. Born in 1972 in Niort, a small town in western France, Énard studied Arabic and Persian, and travelled widely in his twenties, before settling in Barcelona in 2000.
His accomplishments recall the curricula vitae of those Victorians who were at once field archeologists, colonial administrators, specialists in medieval poetry, spiritualists, and spies. Énard has published scholarly articles on contemporary Palestinian and Iraqi literature; a collection of poems entitled “Dernière Communication à la Société Proustienne de Barcelone” (while it sounds like the conceit of a Bolaño novel, Énard really belongs to the organization); and numerous shorter fictions. For a time, he ran a Lebanese restaurant in Barcelona. As a translator from Farsi, Spanish, and Arabic into French, he has published comically obscene erotic verse by the nineteenth-century Iranian poet Mirzâ Habib Esfahâni, experimental fiction by Robert Juan-Cantavella, and the journals of Yussef Bazzi, a former child soldier in the Lebanese Civil War. He is an aficionado of comic books and graphic novels, regularly writing reviews for Le Monde’s “C’est Graphique” and recently publishing a contribution to the genre, “Prendre Refuge,” with the artist Zeina Abirached. (One strand of the narrative imagines a lesbian romance between an archeologist and the Swiss travel writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, unfolding under Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas on the eve of the Second World War.)
It’s as a novelist, however, that Énard has most powerfully synthesized these far-flung interests. His début, “La Perfection du Tir” (2003), is narrated by a sniper in a nameless war-torn city. The novel established a pattern that later works have followed: tense monologues that draw in the world with centripetal force. This style culminates in “Zone” (2008) and “Compass” (2015), stream-of-consciousness doorstoppers that reconceive the “clash of civilizations” as an irreversibly hybrid network of bloodshed and beauty. “Zone,” Énard’s fourth book (and the first to be translated into English), is to war crimes what “Moby-Dick” is to whaling—the encyclopedic wake of one man’s lacerating obsession. The narrator and protagonist is Francis Mirković, a Croatian-French intelligence officer on a train to Rome, where he plans to sell a list identifying thousands of war criminals to a Vatican bureaucrat. Suffering “the hangover of the century,” Mirković drifts between memories of battlefields and mass killings, troubled by his own misdeeds as a Croat fighter in the Yugoslav wars. Borders dissolve in his vision of crucified cosmopolitanism. The result is a grim, amphetamine-fuelled reckoning, one five-hundred-page sentence divided, like the Iliad, into twenty-four books.
“Zone” ends in the middle of the night—which is where “Compass” begins. “Compass,” which won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, follows the insomniac reminiscences of an Austrian musicologist entranced by the centuries of mutual borrowing that define “East” and “West.” It is a florilegium of invented academic articles, desert travelogues, music criticism, and miniature biographies of real and imagined adventurers, from a femme-fatale hotelier in Palmyra to a French researcher seduced by the Iranian Revolution. The novel that emerges is tender, beautiful, and almost cosmically expansive. Franz Ritter, the narrator, is Énard’s answer to Leopold Bloom. Pining after the brilliant scholar Sarah, a close friend whom he has loved for many years, Ritter sublimates his longing into a vast romantic cartography, retracing the itinerary of their friendship—Paris, Vienna, Damascus, Aleppo, Bandar Abbas, Tehran—in a mental move eastward that ends at daybreak. Throughout, Ritter is fascinated by the recursiveness of cultural exchange, the way, for example, that Ottoman aristocrats favored European composers who were unwittingly influenced by the Turkish military march. We learn that Saudi propagandists draw on the aesthetics of Disney’s “Aladdin”; that numerous European buildings borrow their neoclassical façades from Syria’s Roman ruins; that, in the midst of the First World War, German Orientalists wrote a tract in classical Arabic encouraging jihad against France and Britain.
The passionate, self-consciously ironic spirit animating “Compass” justifies its propensity to ramble on about, say, Wagner’s similarity to Iranian theocrats. But Énard is equally adept at more conventionally structured fiction. By far the most affecting of his novels is “Street of Thieves” (2012), a darkly winsome coming-of-age story set in contemporary Morocco and Spain. Lakhdar, a young Moroccan who has been disowned by his family, searches for freedom on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Believing in little and attached to nothing, Lakhdar pinballs through a picaresque series of jobs, living arrangements, relationships: peddling pamphlets for the extremist Center for the Propagation of Koranic Thought; transcribing First World War casualty records “by the kilometer”; exchanging poems with his on-and-off girlfriend, a student of Arabic literature from Barcelona. In pursuit of her, he enlists as a dogsbody on the Ibn Battuta, a ferry between Tangier and Algeciras. Daydreaming of Spain—where, unable to obtain a visa, he isn’t permitted to leave port—he envisions leading the ferry’s army of trucks, old Renaults and Mercedes-Benzes, through the Iberian streets. In a glorious re-Reconquista, “Spain would become Moroccan again, something it never should have stopped being.”
Lakhdar the Sisyphean migrant, shuttling back and forth across the Mediterranean; Francis Mirković the repentant Balkan crusader, toting his informer’s briefcase as if it were the Book of Judgment; Franz Ritter the lovelorn scholar, lost in remembered cities and the Turkish riffs in Mozart—Énard’s heroes inhabit what Ritter calls a “barzakh, the world between worlds into which artists and travelers fall.” Their stories become nodes in a global web of cultural cribbings, migrations, and traditions, which the velocity of Énard’s prose endows with an Internet-age simultaneity. No matter the continent, language, or century, everything collides on the same accelerating plane. According to Ritter, this can only be good for art and literature: “Genius wants bastardy,” and the world is bastardizing more quickly than ever before.