France's top book prize goes to tale of opium-fuelled dream

3rd November 2015, Comments 0 comments

A book about a night of opium-fuelled cross-cultural dreaming won France's most prestigious -- and lucrative -- literary prize Tuesday in a contest dominated by the West's fraught relationship with Islam.

Mathias Enard took the Goncourt prize with "Boussole" ("Compass"), a poetic eulogy to the long history of cultural exchanges between East and West that flies in the face of cliches about the so-called clash of civilisations.

The novel runs the course of a night of opium-induced ruminations, and in the spirit of his high-flown odyssey, its burly author told a scrum of reporters that Lebanon's patron saint and the ghost of Algeria's most revered Islamic thinker may have had a hand in his victory.

"I have just come back from Algiers and Beirut," said Enard, 43, a scholar of both Arabic and Persian. "Maybe it was the luck that Sheikh Abderrahmane (a historian who died in 2010) and Saint George of Beirut brought me...

"I am extraordinarily happy," he added, after fighting his way into the Paris restaurant where the prize was decided over lunch by the Goncourt's jury, who are all elected for life.

The novel has already won the booksellers' prize -- the Nancy-Le Point -- for its nimbly erudite voyage from the Islamic enlightenment of the Middle Ages to present day Islamic State executioners in war-torn Syria.

Although Enard had been the clear critics' favourite, the daring and density of his writing -- the opening sentence lasts a page -- put others off.

The head of the jury, Bernard Pivot said after the award: "You have to be audacious to write a book like this, and you also have to be audacious to read it."

But the Barcelona-based Enard insisted his book was "very accessible... I write very simply. All you have to do is open the book to realise that it not as hard to read as some say."

An academic who has lived in Tehran, Berlin and Beirut, where his breakthrough novel "Zone" (2008) is set, Enard also won France's second most lucrative prize, the youth Goncourt, in 2010.

- Prize decided over lunch -

"I like a winning book which tells of the world in which we live," the head of the jury, Bernard Pivot, told French radio on the eve of the often-heated final judging lunch, this year fought out over lamb stew with olives and sundried tomatoes.

Although the victor gets only 10 euros ($11) in prize money, the Goncourt almost guarantees a boost in sales of 450,000 copies or more, placing it instantly among the year's bestsellers.

All four novels in the final reckoning for the oldest literary prize in the French-speaking world dealt in one way or another with the Middle East or the long twilight of France's colonial entanglement in the region.

The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal was long the odds-on favourite for the prize but failed to make the final cut last week with his dystopian vision of a future Islamic caliphate, "2084", its title a nod to George Orwell's classic "1984".

Sansal had the strong backing of Michel Houellebecq, France's most famous literary provocateur, who also has Islamists in his sights in his latest offering "Submission".

With Sansal out, many had thought the smart money was on "Les Preponderants" (roughly translated as "The Principals"), by veteran Franco-Tunisian author Hedi Kaddour.

- 'Cruel and stupid tyranny' -

The fact that the Goncourt jury chose to reveal its final four novels in Tunis, where Kaddour, 70, was born, seemed also to indicate they were leaning his way.

Pivot said the announcement in the city's Bardo Museum, where jihadist gunmen killed 22 people last March, was show support the country's fledgling democracy in the very place "where the most cruel and stupid tyranny had shown its contempt for freedom".

There was also disappointment for Tobie Nathan and his "Ce pays qui te ressemble" ("This country that you resemble"), with its tales of the Jewish Cairo of his childhood.

The fourth nominee and only woman on the shortlist was Nathalie Azoulai, whose love story "Titus n'aimait pas Berenice" ("Titus does not love Berenice") also had a Middle Eastern twist.

Delphine de Vigan won the parallel Renaudot prize for her already bestselling Stephen King-inspired thriller "D'après une histoire vraie" ("From a true story").

Only six women writers have ever won the Goncourt in its 112-year history, including Lydie Salvayre last year for "Pas pleurer" ("Don't cry").

© 2015 AFP

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