Nostalgia and Fear, Fueling Literature ; French Novelists Address Complex Links to Africa and the Middle East

By Donadio, Rachel | International New York Times, December 23, 2015 | Go to article overview

Nostalgia and Fear, Fueling Literature ; French Novelists Address Complex Links to Africa and the Middle East


Donadio, Rachel, International New York Times


Several high-profile novels set in the Middle East or North Africa have captivated a French public that is nostalgic but also fearful after the recent terrorist attacks.

Well before tensions between France's Muslim and non-Muslim populations rose in response to the terrorist attacks last month, the Islamic world had been looming large in French literature this season -- a sign of the powerful influence the Middle East and North Africa play in the nation's cultural imagination.

Three of the four novels shortlisted in October for France's most prestigious book award, the Goncourt Prize, concern the Arab world. A fifth novel, "2084," a dystopian tale set in a totalitarian Islamic caliphate by the Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is a best seller. The books have also won an array of other awards.

These novels have captivated a country grappling with its identity and its vexed history as a colonial power, and show how France is pulled today between nostalgia for its past and fear for its future.

"French literature is very political this year, very open to the world, after being closed in on itself," said Eric Naulleau, a cultural commentator and a book critic for Le Point, a Paris weekly. "It's the result of the period of tension that we're living in."

Mr. Sansal's "2084" contrasts sharply with this year's Goncourt winner, "Boussole" ("Compass"), a best seller by the French novelist Mathias Enard that is an erudite exploration of centuries of cultural exchange between East and West.

In a country that takes literary prizes seriously, the announcement of the Goncourt winner in Paris last month was broadcast on national television, and Mr. Enard needed a police escort to navigate past all the press. In a clear political statement, the Goncourt jury had announced the four finalists at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, where terrorists killed 22 people in March.

The Goncourt shortlist didn't include "2084," and Mr. Sansal and some critics accused the jury of political correctness. "It's hard to give the prize to someone who wrote a book like mine," Mr. Sansal said, adding that he compared radical Islam to Nazism or fascism, and believed that the jury had been afraid to select a novel that could be seen as "conflating Islamism and Islam," or violent political Islam and the religion itself.

Bernard Pivot, the head of the jury, and the novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, another of its 10 members, said the panel had voted on artistic merit. "Our choice is literary, not political," said Mr. Pivot, who was the longtime host of a popular literary television program. He said "2084" was impressive but flawed. "If we had made a political choice, to go to Tunisia to the Bardo Museum, it would have been logical for it to be on our final shortlist," he added.

Michel Houellebecq, whose own best-selling novel "Submission" imagines France in 2022 under its first Muslim president, praised "2084." (Mr. Houellebecq couldn't compete for this year's prize since he has already won the Goncourt.)

Mr. Sansal's novel is set in 2084 in the fictional nation of Abistan and tells the story of a man who begins to question the underpinnings of the form of Islam that holds the country in a fierce totalitarian sway. It is a barely veiled critique of the military dictatorship in Algeria, where, since the 1980s, Islamism has been on the rise. Mr. Sansal said he had looked to Afghanistan, Algeria and Libya to create Abistan.

"I told my friends, one day someone should write about 2084, like Orwell's '1984,' to explain how an Islamist dictatorship comes about," he said. With the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, "we've seen it materialize in a surreal way," he said, "so I had to write a book very quickly."

His novel has sold 194,000 copies and will be published by Europa Editions in an English translation next fall.

A nonobservant Muslim and an engineer by training, Mr. Sansal, 67, had to quit his job as a deputy minister of industry in Algeria in 2004 after criticizing the Algerian government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now in his fourth term. …

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