France’s top literary prize was won by writer Mathias Enard in a race dominated by novels about West’s love-hate relationship with Islam and the Arab world. A scholar of both Arabic and Persian, Barcelona-based Enard, 43, wove a poetic eulogy to the long history of cultural exchanges between East and West in “Boussole” (“Compass”), and had been the critics’ favourite for the award.
The novel has won the booksellers’ prize – the Nancy-Le Point – for its erudite that was nimbly voyage which flies in the face of several of the platitudes about the so-called clash of civilisations. Seven out of 16 critics polled by one of France’s top publications weeklies said Enard – an academic who has lived in Tehran, Berlin and Beirut, where his breakthrough novel “Zone” (2008) is set – most “earned” the prize, and he told reporters he was “extremely happy” as the news of his triumph broke.
The four novels in the finished reckoning for the Goncourt, the earliest & most esteemed in the French-speaking world, dealt in one manner or another with the long twilight of France’s colonial entanglement in the region or the Middle East.
“I like a winning book which tells of the planet where we dwell,” the head of the jury, Bernard Pivot, told French radio on the eve of the often-heated lunch at a Paris restaurant over which the winner is chosen.
Though the victor gets only 10 euros ($11) in prize money, the Goncourt nearly guarantees a boost in income of 450,000 copies or more, setting it forthwith among the year’s bestsellers.
Too as “Zone”, Enard’s 2012 story of young Moroccans adrift in Europe “Street of Thieves” has already been translated into English.
With Sansal outside, many had thought the smart money was on “Les Preponderants” (roughly translated as “The Principals”), by expert Franco-Tunisian author Hedi Kaddour.
His novel, set in the Tunisia of the 1920s as resentment at French rule grows, was joint winner last week of the Academie Francaise prize, given by the lofty defenders of the French language referred to as the “immortals”, who rule over grammar and which new words enter their dictionary.
The fact that the Goncourt jury made a decision to reveal its closing four novels in Tunis, where 70, Kaddour, was born, appeared also to signal they were tending his way.
Pivot said the highly symbolic statement in the city’s Bardo Museum, where jihadist gunmen killed 21 tourists and also a policeman in an assault last March, was to show support for the state’s fledgling democracy in the very spot “where the most barbarous and dumb tyranny had revealed its contempt for independence”.
Tobie Nathan’s “Ce pays qui te ressemble” (“This country that you resemble”) was also said to have its lovers on the jury, with its stories of the Jewish Cairo of his childhood along with the lost idyll of the city’s cosmopolitan tolerance.
The sole girl on the shortlist, Nathalie Azoulai, also had a Middle Eastern twist to her pained love story “Titus n’aimait pas Berenice” (“Titus does not love Berenice”).
However there was better news for women in the concurrent Renaudot prize, won by Delphine de Vigan, who was also the only female writer in contention, for “D’apres une histoire vraie” (“From an actual story”).
Only six women writers have ever won the Goncourt in its 112-year history, including Lydie Salvayre last year for “Pas pleurer” (“Do Not weep”).