Mathias Enard is a French novelist and academic, who has lived in Barcelona for most of the last fifteen years. Prior to settling in Barcelona, he spent a decade living and studying Arabic and Persian languages in the Middle East – Syria, Iran, Lebanon. He has published nine books in French, and they have won numerous awards. His latest novel, Compass, won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in France, and was later nominated for the International Man Booker Prize. Four of Enard’s books have appeared in English, all translated by Charlotte Mandell and published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions: Zone, Compass, Street of Thieves, and Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants.

Enard’s longer novels – Zone and Compass – are particularly complex works, blending the formal experiments of modernist fiction with dense tapestries of historical fact. The latter tells the story of the links between Europe and the Middle East through the nighttime peregrinations of a lovesick Austrian musicologist, Franz Ritter. The former is an almost single-sentence novel of over 500 pages, which journeys through a legacy of violence on and around the Mediterranean Sea. The experience of reading these books is quite unlike any other – they are beautiful, violent, disturbing, moving; sometimes boring, often overwhelming, and ultimately unforgettable. I met Enard in London.

 

 

Ian Maleney:

Where did you grow up? What was it like?

 

Mathias Enard:

I was born in Niort, it’s a small town in the west of France, on the Atlantic coast, and my parents were middle-class, very French people. I had a great childhood, but Niort you know is a really small town and I was always fascinated by distant lands and foreign countries, languages. So I read lots of books – travel books, reportage, novels. And very soon I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I had to find something in between to get to know the world before I started to write. And so I decided to learn Arabic and Persian at university, which had two advantages for me. It was the way to get to Paris and to skip the normal university near my place, which was Poitiers, only forty miles away from home. That was too close. And it was also this ability to, through foreign language, Arabic and Persian, to get a step closer to those lands. And in fact that was what happened. After my first year at the university, I got the opportunity to go there to live. First to Iran, then to Egypt, and I would go back to Paris just for the exams. And that’s how I did all my studies from undergrad until my PhD in Tehran.

So I spent ten years in the Middle East and, around 2000, I met my wife. We got married in Beirut, we were living in Beirut. She’s Spanish Catalan from Barcelona, and around that time, she got the opportunity to work at the University of Barcelona, a job offer there. So we settled in Barcelona and it’s been something like fifteen years now.

 

Maleney:

Thinking about how that part of the world is today, it’s remarkable that you had the opportunity to actually study in the Middle East; not just to study the Middle East, but to do it there, on location.

 

Enard:

That was the great thing of that time. You know the nineties were kind of a blessed period for scholars there because you could settle almost everywhere. There was peace in the region at that time. And also hope. Hope that conflicts and wars might be over and soon democracy and welfare would be all around the place. Which of course was not the case. It wasn’t very clear but we thought maybe after the first Iraq War and the beginning of the Oslo period of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everything would be settled in a few years. So we lived with that hope. Also that the big dictators of the region like Egypt or Syria would democratise in a few years. And of course, that’s not what happened but we couldn’t know it at that time.

So to live in the Middle East in the 90s, or learn and be students, was very, very interesting. When I was in Syria, for example, it was a very hard dictatorship, but nonetheless we were able to meet people, talk with people, and learn, and travel as much as we wanted. That was very important I think in my formation. It’s difficult now to go back to the Middle East. Of course it’s impossible to go to Syria. And I’ve been denied a visa to go to Iran many times, it’s quite difficult to go there. But I still have the contacts, through the people of course, but also through literature and poetry. I think it’s very present in my books too.

 

Maleney:

When you went to the Middle East, did it change your perspective on home? On Niort, on France, on Europe more generally?

 

Enard:

Of course, it changes radically, the way you see your own country, your own language, your own literature. Also the way of life you have. You see things in a much more relative way, and you realise the luck you had, the luck we have in Europe now, in comparison to those lands of course. You get a clear sight of that, how lucky you were at birth.

When I was a teenager, I had read a few French authors or European authors, but I had no idea what the classical Arabic or Persian literature was at all. So getting a chance to have first-hand contact with it was really amazing. Then getting to know contemporary authors, novelists, poets, many of whom were not translated, are still not translated, into European languages – it was very important to get a proper eye, a proper view of things, a proper sense of what literature means.

 

Maleney:

In your books, there seems to be a common thread; they are concerned about where Europe ends, and something else begins. Did your sense of where Europe’s borders are – its physical borders, the borders of its ideas and its culture – change when you left?

 

Enard:

Yes, it does change your place in the world. When you spend so much time in foreign lands, your sense of home changes too. You’re not abroad anymore, it’s where you live. So, for me, it’s not that I was not French – of course, I am still a French citizen, that’s the only passport I have, and I still write in French and as far as books are concerned, I have only written in French – but at the same time, you change so much that you’re not only French, you’re something else. You’ve added something to your personality, your way of seeing things, how you understand the world and live in it and your tastes. Many matters are different. Actually I’m writing a new book, my first very French book, about the place where I grew up, and I see it as rather exotic. Totally strange – very, very, very exotic for me. Of course, when I was living there, that was not the case. I thought everything was very normal. I think when you’re living abroad in this way, you change and you get the capacity to see your own land with foreign eyes.

 

Maleney:

There’s a Wim Wenders film called Lisbon Story, maybe you’ve seen it? At the start of that film, the narrator drives from Berlin to Lisbon and he’s amazed that he can drive such a distance without crossing any borders or passing any checkpoints. This idea that you could go that far, that the continent was just one area which was open to everybody, was still new. I was wondering, when you left Europe, did you see borders in a different way?

 

Enard:

When I was a child, we often travelled to Spain. And at that time, there was a border. When I grew up, there were borders everywhere. I remember the first time I was in Germany, it was East Germany. My first trip there, we had to cross this very impressive border, with very frightening soldiers. So it was only later that the European Union managed to do the Schengen Agreement to have all those borders open. It was a feeling of sudden freedom. Which of course we didn’t have in the Middle East because there you change country every fifty miles and it’s very long border harassment – you had to bribe the officers. It was really something at that time, and I think it still is.

It’s very frightening now to cross the border between Lebanon and Syria, or even more frightening between Turkey and Syria. But back then, you went through, mostly because we were Europeans. We had European passports – French, British, Spanish – and that helped a lot. But for Syrians, or Lebanese, there was real harassment at the border, it was very hard. They were humiliated and at times denied the possibility to cross, without reason, just because they didn’t have the right bribe at the right time. Those were horrible stories. Borders are always terrifying. So the dream of a Middle East without borders, like Europe without borders – now you can take your car, like in the Wim Wenders film, from Lisbon to Berlin – that would mean taking your car from Cairo to Istanbul without borders. That would be absolutely great, but it’s not for tomorrow.

 

Maleney:

I’m asking about this because Street of Thieves seems to be a novel almost entirely about borders, and the difficulties that some people have in crossing physical, geographical borders, but also social borders.

 

Enard:

Social, linguistic, political borders. They are the subject of Street of Thieves.

 

Maleney:

Where did you find that story that you felt needed to be told in that way?

 

Enard:

That was a really crazy project, Street of Thieves. It was the idea I had in mind when what we call, or used to call, the Arabic Spring began. I was in Barcelona, and there was also the Indignados movement at the same time. I was really following the events – the Indignados because they were almost a hundred metres away from my place, the Arabic Spring because of course I know those places, and I know Arabic, so I would turn on the radio to see what was happening. At that point, I thought I could write something, or try to write a novel ‘live’, a live novel that would be kind of like reportage, but with characters and fictions. And I had a small office in a very small street of Barcelona called Street of Thieves, Carrer Robadors in Catalan. I always met Moroccan youngsters in the street, or at the bar, selling stolen bikes – funny people, nice guys. So I met one, and he told me his story, where he came from in Tangier, or on the outskirts of Tangier. And I asked him how he got to Barcelona, and it was a crazy story. And I said, Oh, that could be my character. A Moroccan youngster who could testify to the events in Morocco and in Barcelona, and through his eyes I could find a voice, a foreign way to see all these things. So I began reporting. I was writing a fiction, but at the same time I was following the events with this character, Lakhdar.

It’s true though, the theme of the book is the borders you have to cross to go from one place to another. It’s not only about crossing – crossing the straits physically, finding a way to enter Spain – it’s also how can you cross a linguistic barrier, an economic one, a social one; or what does it mean to bond with someone, to fall in love with someone you know has a very different history, a very different culture? The book is about that. It was very interesting entering those subjects through Lakhdar’s eyes.

 

Maleney:

Lakhdar is not an activist in any way. He’s not someone who has become caught up in these things intentionally.

 

Enard:

He has a very interesting position. He’s inside, of course, because he’s a Moroccan youngster. He’s in his late teens as the book begins. But at the same time, he’s like many of these young people, not really taking part in these events because they have become outcasts for not being in the right place at the right moment, or not really being interested in politics, or because they don’t yet have the interest in the social media that will motivate the protests. At first, he’s only a witness. Yes, an outsider, but nevertheless he is very interested in what’s happening. He finds a way to participate in it only through watching. That’s what I was doing myself. When I was writing, I was observing the events but doing nothing myself. I was much like my character.

 

Maleney:

One debate which has come up a lot recently, with regard to fiction, is the question of what stories an author has the right to tell. Is that something that’s on your mind? Lakhdar is a young Moroccan man – you have to inhabit his mind, his experience, his personality, everything. Is that a concern for you?

 

Enard:

Yes, it’s a question. I asked myself that at the beginning. May I, in first-person, use a young Moroccan narrator? And I answered myself, well, if you cannot do that, can you be a woman? No, neither. Do you have to be yourself always? You, Mathias, French, west French, citizen. So I said, where’s the limit then? Maybe with empathy and a bit of knowledge, it can entitle you to write in his name. It’s a character, it’s yours, you can make it whatever you want. I think the moral issue is being more or less truthful to what you believe in, that’s the important thing, whoever the character may be. I’m sure that Moroccan identity is not something impossible to get to know. It’s very close to us and it’s another society, but it’s very close to mine. Why could I have, for example, an Irish character but not a Moroccan? Why would it be a problem of distance, and why would it be a problem of language? At times you realise you have more in common with someone very far from you than your own family or neighbours.

 

Maleney:

Maybe they’re too tragic or terrible to say this, but some of the stories in Street of Thieves are almost silly, or ridiculous. The man who reclaims the bodies from the sea, or with the ferry that gets stuck in port and all the crew are forced to stay on board for weeks.

 

Enard:

It’s a crazy story, the story of the boat. The company that was running these lines between Tangier and Spain, and France too, suddenly collapsed. The workers were stuck in their boats, either in Spain or in France, everywhere, and they were there like a month, waiting for something to happen. Many of them didn’t have the means to go back home. They were just stuck. That was happening at the same time, this tragedy of the Comarit company. So I imagined that it could be a good place for Lakhdar and his adventures, and that he would be stuck, but in Spain, on the right side. So it was luck too, because he could find a way to escape the harbour, and set foot in Spain. To enter another kind of hell. It’s almost like stations. That’s why it’s also a novel, it’s some kind of adventure novel where you enter different phases, adventures, and moments that will take you to Barcelona.

 

Maleney:

When we talk about migration into Europe, there’s so much focus on the border itself, but less on what actually happens to people when they enter into the European system, if they enter the system at all, or how they exist outside that system. This new hell that they enter into, as you say. That’s such a hidden world.

 

Enard:

Yes, it is indeed. How they get exploited, it’s a tragedy. Two-hundred kilometres west of Barcelona, there’s a city called Lleida. It’s a capital for agriculture in the region. So many illegal workers who enter Spain go there to find jobs. Black market, illegal things. And they camp on the outskirts of the city. It’s kind of a dead end, where all the unwanted people of Europe end up living in forgotten fields, or among abandoned olive trees. They live there on the first slopes of the Pyrenees mountains. It’s very scary because they don’t know what to do, they’re leftovers, they’re abandoned by everyone, abused. When they find work – the farmers there employ them from time to time – it is very hard work for very low wages. So really it’s slavery, at best. It’s very, very sad. Everybody knows about it, but nobody does anything to change it.

So you’re right, the worst is after you’ve entered the European Union, a European country, as an illegal. What do you do? You have to find people who help you to integrate, a system where you can find a job, a place to stay, a place to live. If you’re a Syrian, you can ask for asylum. But even then you will wait probably one or two years before you get the decision, and the opportunity to get a job to sustain yourself and your family. So it’s very hard, very difficult.

 

Maleney:

I think what you said earlier about it being a ‘live’ novel was very interesting.

 

Enard:

That was a failure. I realised at the end that it was a bad idea.

 

Maleney:

Why was it a bad idea?

 

Enard:

I think what you need when you write a novel is the opposite: time to reflect on the events. By depriving myself of that, I was doing the work of a journalist more than a novelist. And it’s very difficult because you have no insight, you have no real time to think, time to see where these events are going. You’re just describing them as they appear, and I’m not very comfortable with that.

 

Maleney:

Usually there is so much information in your work, so much historical knowledge. That isn’t really present in Street of Thieves, and I think it results in a much more traditional structure than one finds in the rest of your work.

 

Enard:

Yes, the project itself was crazy because it was against what I normally do. It was interesting because it’s always interesting to be displaced, or in a place where you wouldn’t usually put yourself. So I enjoyed writing it, it was a great experience, but afterwards I realised that, for me, it was not really satisfying. If you can take the time to think about the book, its architecture, characters, plots and writing, then for me it’s more satisfying. If you write ‘live’, you’re writing in a few months. It tends to be linear, because you have no time to think of something more complex. And at the end, it might give the reader the idea that the world is simpler than it is. And what interests me now is to give back the world its complexity. Make it readable, of course, but there is a kind of complexity in it. Street of Thieves, for me, is too straightforward. The world is not like that, I think.

 

Maleney:

Compass is a good counterexample. It’s a very complex book, and one that invites the reader to slow down. It doesn’t drive forward like Street of Thieves.

 

Enard:

I wanted people to take time to read that book because there are many stories, many things in it. Compass, for me, was thought of as a strange artefact with many tentacles outside the book. So you can go on the internet and look for one character in the book, and see what his real life is like outside the book. Or you can look at the music, or a composer, and listen to the music and it’ll take you somewhere else. So, for me, it was really a twenty-first century novel – it might not look like that – because of its relation to its outside and the possibilities of the internet now. So I was very careful when I chose a composer or a moment or a place, that it was easily available on the internet. That people could go there and listen to the music or learn more about something. Or not! You could just read the book and go through it and you’d enjoy it the same. But it left this door open. The possibility to go outside it.

That makes the reading, I think, not more difficult, but slower. It’s written in many forms, many different kinds of discourse in this monologue of Franz Ritter – you have letters, mail, but also articles, academic prose, many different textures of text. Poetry. So that was interesting, writing it with this diversity. I think for the reader it’s an interesting experience, but of course it takes more time to read than Street of Thieves, which is very quick. In Compass, for the information it contains, the way it is written, and this density of textures, it takes a lot of time. But I say it’s also more interesting for the reader, all these aspects of complexity.

 

Maleney:

Because Compass is a work of fiction, and it doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s fiction, the reader is always in a slightly ambiguous state when they’re reading it. The reader doesn’t know if the person you’re talking about in the book is real or not, so they have to go and check.

 

Enard:

When I use a character, a real one say, an historic one, there are times when I intentionally change bits of their life, or quotes, and use my fiction as a tool to make the life much more interesting than it was, or more appealing, or to fit better into my book at that moment. That’s fiction, that’s why it’s called fiction. Even if 99 per cent of what I’m talking about happened in history, it still remains fiction. When you tell a story about a character who died 200 years ago, and you write a dialogue, or what he thought, or how he felt, of course that’s invention. We have no clue what he thought or how he felt at that moment. All that is invented. That is the power and the interest in fiction, to fill in those blanks.

 

Maleney:

There’s an old James Woods essay about Sebald, where he talks about how different writers use facts in their work, either as a stabilising effect, where the facts lend authenticity to the author’s story, or as a destabilising effect, where the facts cause you to question what you’re being told, what you’re not being told, and so on. What role does all the historical knowledge in your books play in terms of the story, and its effect on the reader?

 

Enard:

I use the facts to make it more believable, plausible, real at the end. Those facts give you a sense of reality. But what’s more interesting to me is to connect facts. That interests me more and more: how you pass from one thing to another, how you link two things to each other, how a novel, a book or an essay can make you feel, make you see, how connected things are. Making these relations for you, showing you how this is related to this or that thing.

Talking about Sebald, he was the first writer who made me realise that what is important in writing is precisely this. There’s this famous interview with Sebald in the United States, just a few months before he died. A journalist who, I think, didn’t know him at all, asked him, what do you write about? It’s an incredible question, but it’s really interesting because we have his answer. And he said, ‘I think I write about what’s on the side of the road.’ I think it’s fascinating, because it’s really like that. You have the feeling when you’re reading Sebald that you’re on a path, and you’re travelling with him, and what he sees makes sense to him. And then it makes sense to you. You see how all these things are connected. You think of his famous trip when he’s walking in East Anglia, in The Rings of Saturn, that’s exactly this – how suddenly the power of literature is that things make sense in travel.

 

Maleney:

Your characters in Compass and Zone, they don’t have to travel exactly.

 

Enard:

They’re always in movement.

 

Maleney:

But they’re travelling in their heads, in memories.

 

Enard:

As is the reader! When you’re a reader, the problem is not whether you’re actually travelling or not, because you’re inside the book, reading it. Of course, the reader of Sebald doesn’t have to go to Norfolk to enjoy what’s in the book. My readers are travelling with Francis in the train from Milan to Rome, then travelling all around the Mediterranean for battles and all kinds of horrors; or with Franz Ritter inside his flat in Vienna, but going outside on this very long trip from Vienna to the Pacific Ocean through all Asia.

The books that would have fascinated me as a child, as a teenager, were books that take you on a long journey. They were the books I enjoyed the most. For me, Sebald, he lacks humour, that’s the only thing. He’s so serious, German. No irony, nothing. But he’s a genius, he likes that, we’ll forgive him. But he’s leading you on a journey you would never have imagined, talking about topics you would never have had a clue about, and through landscapes which might seem very unattractive but which, by the end, make sense and are incredibly rich. So the idea is of a novel being a kind of impossible journey. You’re stuck in a place, but at the same time you’re travelling in your head, in memory, or in other books. I think that’s the form of my writing.

 

Maleney:

You say that the connections are what’s important, and in the case of Zone particularly, the connections are clearer because there’s no division in the way that they’re written. When did that become apparent to you as a method which you could use to get that sense of connection into the work?

 

Enard:

It was there from the first. The book didn’t really start until I had the voice of Francis on the train, this never-ending stream of consciousness. It very quickly appeared to me that the best way to write this was without full stops, in a single sentence. For many reasons. First of all, because it was the train’s rhythm, and the train only stops two or three times, so the monologue only stops two or three times. And because it was much linked to the epos of Homer, and epos is something about rhythm and scansion. So I had this kind of voice, the texture of the text, and I knew it had to be like that, so I began to write a kind of long prose-poem.

 

Maleney:

What were the limitations of that method then? When you were writing, were there things you wanted to connect, but you found there was no way to do so within that form?

 

Enard:

Of course, there were many things I left out. Both in Zone and Compass. Episodes you realise don’t fit. For example, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, at first I thought it could be a great episode for Zone. I was writing Zone when I discovered this story of Michaelangelo. I thought this was too good, to connect two poets, and to end up on each side of the Mediterranean and end up at the Black Sea, I thought it would be wonderful. But I realised it didn’t fit because I had to develop it in a way. It couldn’t just be two or three pages. And Michaelangelo’s character, even though he was Italian and I could link him to Rome, it was difficult to make him a Zone character and a Zone story. So it just jumped out of the train and I wrote it later, in another form. In Compass too there were many things which were abandoned.

When you’re dealing with such huge material, this always happens. There are many stories you want to tell, and you realise, no, you have to choose. Every story that I left in Compass represents the ones that are not there. I knew I wanted women travellers, female characters in the 19th and 20th centuries, so instead of having twenty of them, I chose three important ones who represented, in a way, the others. Jane Digby, Lady Stanhope, Annemarie Schwarzenbach – I thought that was quite representative. In my books, it’s much like how a sculptor, when carving a figure, discards matter to get the shape. And not like a painter who works up from a blank with paint. I imagine myself as much more a sculptor than a painter. It’s all planned though. Zone was a huge plan with boxes, two hundred of them probably, on a big wall, with colours and stuff. The mosaic that I designed in Zone was very planned. The difficulty was to find a way to switch from one thing to another. Transitions were hard. But you find them, in the end.

 

Maleney:

Zone is a very violent novel, there’s a lot of violence in it. Was it difficult to face up to that, to deal with it day-to-day, to imagine and describe that violence?

 

Enard:

At times it was very tiring. To cope with it, I had to change my mind, do something else, because it was too dark. It was difficult to keep such a dark intensity for such a long time. I had to do something else, such as researching the story of Michaelangelo in Istanbul. In the afternoons, after I had written some very dark pieces of Zone in the morning, I would go research something else that had nothing to do with it, or read something joyful, or different. It was difficult at times, because you know, it’s horrible to say, but when you hear soldiers and you hear the real voices of these people, when you interview them and they tell you terrible stories, you realise it’s real, and just how real it is. You know their names. It kind of contaminates you. You feel, not dirty, but touched by this violence. Of course not as if you lived it, endured it yourself, but it’s there nonetheless. You are touched by it. I remember it took time, maybe weeks, to forget a very painful moment of an interview, or to forget a very powerful moment in the writing.

 

Maleney:

It seems now, when people look back at the 90s and the post-Cold War period, they see a time in Europe which was very placid and peaceful. That wasn’t the case, obviously, but Zone really makes apparent just how politically complex and violent that time was. Did you feel any need to remind people of that time, and the conflicts which were going on?

 

Enard:

Yes, probably. Maybe when I began writing Zone, twelve years ago, those things were more present. The wars in the Balkans for example, they are still there now, but at that time it was very real, very present. I hope that novels – not only Zone, but other authors – help precisely to remember that Europe is not what we think. It has not only been a peaceful and a wonderful place to live since the end of the Second World War. No. You’ve had the Cold War, you’ve had many violent episodes, and you’ve had this horrible war at the end of Yugoslavia. I hope that literature can help us to remember that.

 

Maleney:

Do you think some of those fault lines are beginning to show up again? That some of those things we’ve glossed over are becoming clearer again, and there’s been a reassertion of what could be seen as irreconcilable differences, people retreating to various identities in an aggressive way?

 

Enard:

Of course, that’s happening all across Europe. You see now a fear of globalisation, a fear of losing identity in a very complex world, and it makes people think that they have to close themselves into very small, closed countries and identities. That’s very dangerous for Europe because it’s totally incompatible with the idea of a big shared space.

 

Maleney:

It’s an interesting question in terms of a Catalan identity. How do you balance that legitimate desire for meaningful national identity against the forces which use nationalism for darker purposes?

 

Enard:

I’m interested in the Catalan story. There are many, many projects for independence. The independents are not one, they are many causes. They have a very open vision of a possible independent Catalonian future. Very European, very open minded, not closed to a Catalan identity. It’s very interesting to see how, even in a nationalist project, you can have many different visions of that. And the point is, you may say, well, what do you want independence for then? Why do you really want independence if what you want is something open? And the answer would probably be, first of all, that there’s a symbolic difference to a state – your own power, your own democratic means, your own land – even if it’s only symbolic because if you’re in the European Union, you’ll be just like all the others, more or less. And then there’s also, I think, something very postmodern in that. You want to act very local, but think globally. To link small regions to other small regions, and you can be much more efficient on environmental issues for example, also cultural exchanges, many things. So seen like that, maybe cutting down all our huge European countries wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Maybe we could just think about having a huge European Union with small entities inside it.

 

Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandel, is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions

 

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