Mathias Enard and Dževad Karahasan present a sympathetic, albeit contrasting view of the Orient and of Oriental culture. This is one reason why they have been frequent guests at the European Literature Days.
Born in 1953 in Bosnia, Dževad Karahasan now lives in Graz and Sarajevo. In his major novel Der Trost des Nachthimmels (German edition 2016; English edition: “The Solace of the Night Sky”), Karahasan looks back over a thousand years of the life of the poet, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam (1048–1131). Khayyam was a reserved intellectual and passionate educator. His faith in God didn’t prevent him from looking beyond a rather narrow horizon. For example, the modern Persian calendar dates to his calculations. In his novel, Karahasan tells the story of this wise man and associates his influence in a discrete and convincing way with the Bosnian tragedy. The Solace of the Night Sky is an opulent and poignantly melancholy novel filled with wonderful characters, stories, puzzles and images.
Mathias Enard also takes us back to the past. Born in the French region of Nouvelle-Acquitaine in 1972, after several long periods living in the Middle and Far East, he is now based in Barcelona. In his essayistic novel Compass (German edition 2016; English edition 2017), he highlights the close interrelations between East and West, which had their heyday during the period of 19th-century Orientalism. Enard’s considerable expertise enables him to develop a rich tableau from Hafis to Honoré de Balzac or from Heinrich Heine to Sadeq Hedayat, not to mention Beethoven’s fascination for Oriental culture. He mixes real and fictional personae and narrates the melancholy love story of a musicologist and French Orientalist. They first meet during a congress at Schloss Hainfeld – this is mildly reminiscent of the first European Literature Days symposium in 2009 which Enard also attended as a guest participant.
During the novel (on pages 355–361), Enard’s “compass” focuses on Omar Khayyam. However, in this relatively short episode, Enard contradicts the portrait of Khayyam that Karahasan narrates for us in finely observed details covering several hundred pages. In no time at all, the devout and wise philosopher becomes an agnostic who was, for example, a muse for Fernando Pessoa “sometimes a hedonist, at other times a contemplative lover, a die-hard drunkard or mythical drinker”.
Khayyam’s poetry only plays a secondary role in Karahasan’s novel, while in Mathias Enard’s work the philosophical side is rather neglected. Therefore, we are introduced to two contradictory sides of the same person. Moreover, they reflect the differing viewpoints on the one hand of the Bosnian narrator, Karahasan, whose creative flair is derived from the endless narrative tradition of the Orient. While on the other hand there is the French intellectual who also finds contradictions in Oriental culture and particularly rediscovers a sensuality that is often forgotten today. Yet these contradictory characterizations have no detrimental effect on the personality of Omar Khayyam.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright