The Best Fiction Books » Contemporary Fiction

Mathias Enard on The ‘Orient’ and Orientalism

Compass by Charlotte Mandell (translator) & Mathias Enard

by Charlotte Mandell (translator) & Mathias Enard


Study of the ‘Orient’ and Orientalism has evolved considerably since Edward Said's seminal study of 1978. Here, the multi-award winning French novelist Mathias Enard, whose own novel, Compass, draws on this rich history, discusses five books that capture key aspects of this ever-shifting terrain

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

Compass by Charlotte Mandell (translator) & Mathias Enard

by Charlotte Mandell (translator) & Mathias Enard

Buy all books

Orientalism, or cultural imperialism, is a central theme of your new novel, Compass. How would you even begin to define it?

Orientalism is one of the themes of Compass—and is central indeed–probably precisely because of its polysemy. If it’s difficult to define the ‘Orient,’ then it’s also complicated to know what ‘Orientalism’ means.

It has many sides—the first is maybe the scientific, linked to the history of our knowledge of the Middle East: linguistics, archaeology, history, social sciences etc. But there is also the arts: painting, travel literature, poetry and even music have invented, as well as discovered, this distorted reality we call the ‘Orient’—part dream, part object of desire, part violent representations and fantasies.

I studied Arabic and Persian literature at university in Paris and lived for a few years between Iran, Lebanon and Syria in the 1990s. I was then able to discover the diversity of the Middle East—the diversity of languages, cultures, religions and histories. I think it is this great diversity and richness that made me want to learn more.

How important to your understanding of the field is Edward Said’s seminal study, from 1978?

Said’s Orientalism is of course very important, as he is the first scholar to have deeply questioned the structure of what we called the “Orient” in colonial times. He opened a vast field of investigation. He remains a pioneer and his study is still relevant in that matter, 40 years after its first publication.

“Orientalism is different in France to what it is in Spain or Germany. And then what about Oriental Orientalism? What about Greece, for instance?”

Of course, we know much more now in 2017 about Orientalism; many scholars have investigated its labyrinthine diversity and differences from one country to another. For example, Orientalism is different in France to what it is in Spain or how it appears in Germany. And then what about Oriental Orientalism? What about Greece, for instance? Have the Greeks developed a specific Orientalism, something between East and West? All those questions go far beyond Said’s initial scope.

How did you decide on the structure of Compass, a stream of consciousness, or reverie—sometimes soft-focus, sometimes feverish—framed by contemporary Vienna? It seems more conventional—more clearly inspired by the many literary works it references—than Zone, for example, which consisted in one 530-page-spanning sentence carrying us through European brutality.

Well, that’s a tough question for me. You know, I have the feeling a novel comes with its own structure. I mean, of course, it is totally different to imagine a novel about the violence around the Mediterranean in the 20th century, full of civil wars, war criminals and spies, as Zone is, and the more melancholic Compass, about music and reminiscences of the East.

Both projects are so different that their structure (their writing also, the language inside them) differ greatly. But maybe not so much, in the end. Probably Zone and Compass are something like two sides of the same coin.

Tell us about The Blind Owl, the first book on your list.

Sadeq Hedayat wrote his first long story, The Blind Owl, in the 1920s, thus becoming the first important Iranian novelist. The codes of the “occidental” novel were almost unknown in Iran and Hedayat was the first to play with them in an Iranian context.

The Blind Owl is not only a great novella, dark and disturbing like an opium vision, an erotic nightmare, it is also the first example of this kind of fiction in the Persian language—something like a fantastic tale.

What kind of narrator do we meet here? 

Its originality comes precisely from its narrator. We don’t know his name, but he’s telling us about himself, his intoxication, his cruel love story. Somehow we understand that he’s deceiving us, that he is probably out of his mind. Or maybe not…. Maybe the horrors he’s telling are true. In a way, Hedayat’s narrator was an inspiration for the creation of Franz’s voice in Compass.

What does this work do differently to, say, your next book, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih? 

It’s very similar. Season of Migration to the North is also a story of deception through narrative voices. In this respect Season would be halfway between The Blind Owl and a subversion of One Thousand and One Nights.

The main character of Season is not the narrator himself, as in Heart of Darkness, for example, where everything we know about Kurtz, we learn from Marlow. Season works in the same way with an intermediate character placed between us—the reader—and the main character, Mustafa Saïd. Pretty much like Scheherazade herself would tell a tale…

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

It’s a masterpiece. Probably the best Arabic novel of the 20th century. Subtle, dark and deeply ironic. It describes very well both rural life in Sudan in the 1960s and the relationships between Orient and Occident in the same period. It’s a tale of acculturation, of nativism and of sexual domination of man over women. It’s a tale of books, also. It’s about literature. A very free novella. Unique.

When did you first read it?

I remember reading it for the first time in Cairo, in 1992, in the French translation. Then again in 1994 or 1995, in the Arabic original. The freedom of its style, the pleasure of its language and broad register stuck me then. I have read it many times since in Arabic and in translation with my students. It’s always an immense pleasure.

Tell us about your third book, Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, originally published in Arabic, in Paris in 1855. What did you learn from it?

I learnt to forget what my teachers had taught me! We’re always taught that Arabic fiction in the 19th century isn’t worth a read and is incredibly boring. Well, I can swear to you that this incredible 1,900 page novel is not! It’s the craziest book I’ve read. A mix of epic novel, travelogue, political encyclopaedia, autobiography and… Arabic dictionary.

It’s ironic, clever, always funny, it’s unique. Such a book teaches you that everything is possible if you are totally free, if you can free your mind from clichés and existing images of what a novel should be. I hope someday to be able to write something this impressive, with such a broad scope.

Your fourth book is Drifting Cities by Stratis Tsirkas. What does this one offer the reader?

Again a Mediterranean classic, but this time a Greek one. Written in the 1960s by a Greek—Stratis Tsirkas—who grew up in Egypt, in Alexandria and Cairo. These Drifting Cities are in fact the cities of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Cairo, all three portrayed during the Second World War, during the exile of the Greek government in Egypt.

“Literature should be like this: vital”

It’s one of the most sumptuous love stories I’ve ever read…. Of course, it’s a political and tragic love story. A desperate love story set in utterly violent times. The narratives of the Second World War are seen from a very Mediterranean point of view.

Considering the things you’ve honed in on in the books discussed so far, your final choice is almost self-explanatory.

Yes, all the books owe something to the fifth one, the One Thousand and One Nights, the classic of classics… The Arabian Nights. What is fascinating about the Scheherazade story, the frame tale of the Nights, is its shared destiny in both East and West—Scheherazade was reinvented by Western translations, and, in some ways, it’s like she goes back to the East after centuries of travel. She has inspired so many writers and artists around the world! Even Marcel Proust was fascinated by the Nights. Like Scheherazade, Proust wrote against death, which is thousands of nights long. If Scheherazade stops telling her tale, she dies, executed by the Sultan. Literature should be like this: vital.

Furthermore, The Nights are a shared history, back and forth, on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea. In a way, it is a common construct, part of our shared heritage.

One Thousand and One Nights is a book that shows us, also, the importance of translation and translators for the transmission of ideas and texts. We could say that One Thousand and One Nights is the work of its translators, and embodies a history of translation that dates back to the first version of the tales, written by Antoine Galland, in the beginning of the 18th century.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

June 12, 2017

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Mathias Enard

Mathias Enard

Mathias Enard is a multi-award winning French novelist. His most recent novel, Compass, won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Mathias Enard

Mathias Enard

Mathias Enard is a multi-award winning French novelist. His most recent novel, Compass, won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize