Prix Goncourt 2015: Mathias Enard and Boualem Sansal by Katja Petrovic

It’s literary awards time – this week is France’s most important season for literary accolades. The Prix Goncourt goes to Mathias Enard for his novel Boussole and not to Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, whose name even vanished from the shortlist much to the surprise of many critics.

It took just a single voting round for 43-year-old Mathias Enard to win against his competitors Nathalie Azoulai, Tobie Nathan and Hédi Kaddour. His novel Boussole (Compass) is about a Viennese musicologist who recalls during a sleepless night the various episodes of his life: Istanbul, Aleppo, Damas, Teheran… Enard, a scholar of Arabic and Persian culture, who lived for many years in the Middle East focuses on the image of the East in the Western world in a partly poetic and partly essayistic work.

But his focus is also Europe. Back in 2009 Enard – one of the first writers to attend ELit – held the opening lecture at the debut European Literature Days 2009. He gave an extremely critical analysis of ‘Fortress Europe’ which had then already become a fatal obstacle for refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean: “The beauty of a weapon, a sword, a dagger, a gleaming pistol – the irresistible beauty of a killing machine – that is Europe. [ …] The European will for creativity seems to have absolved the will for destruction. […] Now and then boats in distress are shipwrecked and cover our beaches with corpses bloated with seawater. That’s not pleasant to look at, yet it seems unavoidable; we cannot do anything about it; that’s the price of success. The sad bodies of the drowned are disturbing, so they are quickly concealed. [ …] Ultimately, they are buried in a niche, nameless, on this European earth that they have only seen in death.”

In 2015, along with Mathias Enard the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal was considered one of the most promising candidates for the Goncourt prize for his novel 2084: la fin du monde published by Gallimard. The novel is inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian surveillance state where religion takes over. Although Islam is not explicitly mentioned there are obvious allusions to IS. Sansal’s novel rapidly became a bestseller. Since its publication in August sales reached over 100,000 copies. Earlier in the week along with the novelist and poet from Tunisia, Hédi Kaddour, Sansal was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, one of the leading French literary accolades. Academy member Jean-Christophe Rufin praised the “daring of Boualem Sansal” who has adopted a hot topic of the moment. “A strong book and the attempt to create a connection through language between Orwell’s totalitarian vision and what is happening today before our eyes”, is how he justified the jury’s decision.

But the novel vanished from the Prix Goncourt shortlist and there was speculation about the reasons. Some criticize Sansal for hatred of Islam and regard the book as a kind of continuation of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (Submission). It’s true, Boualem Sansal is among the best-known critics of Islam in France. In 2011 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his public criticism of the political and social conditions in his home country.

So was the novel simply too ‘hostile to Islam’ to be considered for the Goncourt? The theory that there was a general lack of incentive to promote a book, which is already a bestseller, is unconvincing in any case. After all, Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and The Territory, for which he was awarded the Goncourt in 2010, had already sold 180,000 copies. And now Mathias Enard’s prize-winning novel was among the top reviewed new publications of the French rentrée littéraire. In September it had already been awarded the prize of Le Point magazine as well as the French booksellers’ award in Nancy in northern France.

By Katja Petrovic

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 5 November 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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