The winner of France’s 2015 Prix Goncourt: a fever-dream meditation on East and West and on a lost love that binds the two worlds.
Franz Ritter is an old-fashioned European neurasthenic, his lassitude helped along by artificial means: Énard’s opening words, after all, are, “We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud.” Indeed, and that “we” might just as well be the civilizations of Europe and the Muslim world, joined, Franz's beloved Sarah observes, by the Danube, “the river that links Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam.” Don’t forget Judaism, counsels Franz meaningfully. It is about the only time when Sarah, a brilliant scholar, comes up short, but meanwhile Franz has fallen ill, perhaps for one last time, wishing he had—well, among other things, a little more opium, which is not so easy to come by in the Vienna of today, at least not for a law-abiding fellow. And so he lies awake, and he ponders, and he remembers: nights in Beirut and Aleppo before the destruction, days spent among the modern ruins of the Middle East, contemplating the “mosque of the Omayyads without its minaret, its stones lying scattered in the courtyard with the broken marble.” Some of Énard’s novel, drawing on his own career as an Arabist and translator, speaks to might-have-been possibilities: what might happen if the two worlds got along for once? There are quiet sendups of academia, of orientalist nostalgia along the way, but mostly this is a calmly paced tour of a long history, one in which Napoleon and Hitler, Wahhabism and Wagner alike bow in and out. There are moments of quiet Arabian Nights eroticism, too: “Now that I think about it,” reflects Franz, “Sarah’s feet have a perfect arch, under which a small river could easily flow.” And under which, it seems, the centuries and civilizations past and present might also flow as well.
Lyrical and intellectually rich without ever being ponderous, reminiscent at turns of Mann’s Death in Venice and Bowles’ Sheltering Sky.