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The French Literati and the Arab World Do a Complicated Dance

Sunday 20 December 2015

By RACHEL DONADIO DEC. 18, 2015

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 Éric 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 Énard 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. Énard 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.

Mr. Sansal has received death threats from Islamists, as has his fellow Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, whose 2013 novel, “The Meursault Investigation,” reimagines Camus’s “The Stranger” from the point of view of the brother of the Arab killed by the protagonist.

Compared with the bleak future of “2084,” Mr. Énard’s “Boussole” finds more affirmative cultural exchanges in the past. It is told as the opium-fueled reflections of Franz Ritter, a musicologist in today’s Vienna, where, centuries ago, Western forces pushed back Ottoman armies. As he looks back on his life and on the woman he loved, Sarah, a scholar of the Middle East, he thinks back to visits to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

This well-received novel is a kind of encyclopedia of how the encounter with the East changed European painting, literature and music. There are discourses on how Franz Liszt was influenced by the sound of a muezzin (a caller who summons Muslims to prayer); on 19th-century French Orientalist painters; and on the legacy of Edward Said, whose 1978 book, “Orientalism,” shaped a generation of post-colonial scholarship.

Mr. Énard, 43, is himself a scholar of Arabic and Persian, who teaches in Barcelona and lived in Damascus and Tehran in the 1990s. A memorable scene in “Boussole” is set in the desert outside Palmyra, Syria, where a group of scholars and archaeologists spend a long, cold night by the fire. Last year, the Islamic State seriously damaged ancient temples there.

“The book has a melancholic tone because it’s a Viennese nocturne,” Mr. Énard said. “I’m not especially nostalgic, but today the Middle East is in flames, and, obviously, to talk about Syria becomes a bit of a lamentation because the situation in Syria today is absolutely terrifying, and when we think back a few years ago to what it could have been, it’s sad.”

The novel will be published by New Directions in an English translation next fall.

Another Goncourt finalist, “Les Prépondérants,” which loosely translates as “The Ruling Class,” is a co-winner of the Académie Française’s top prize this year, along with “2084.” Cinematic in scope, with multiple intertwined narratives, the novel is set in the Roaring Twenties, when a Hollywood film crew comes to make a movie in an unnamed North African country under French colonial rule, upsetting the power balance between the colonizers and the colonized and challenging the prevailing conservative social norms.

Its Franco-Tunisian author, Hédi Kaddour, 70, who lives in Paris, said he didn’t just want to depict a confrontation between the North African Arabs and their French rulers, but also wanted to add the Americans, so that “I have a third point of view — I have another world,” he said. The book is to be published by Yale University Press in an English translation in 2017.

This year’s Médicis Prize, a French literary award, went to another Goncourt shortlist finalist, “Titus N’Aimait Pas Bérénice,” or “Titus Didn’t Love Berenice,” by the French novelist Nathalie Azoulai, 49. It is a contemporary love story interwoven with references to the characters in Racine’s play “Berenice,” about the Roman emperor Titus, who declines to marry the woman he loves, Berenice, the queen of Palestine, in order to rule his empire.

Also on the Goncourt shortlist was “Ce Pays Qui Te Ressemble,” or “This Country That Resembles You,” a sometimes comic novel set in the Jewish community of Cairo between the 1920s and the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. It was written by Tobie Nathan, 67, a writer and ethno-psychiatrist who left Egypt for France in 1957.

Mr. Kaddour said he believed France’s colonial past would continue to haunt it. “It’s a history that is very complicated, a mix of tragedy and the grotesque, like all histories,” he said. “And it is one from which we haven’t yet escaped.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 19, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Nostalgia and Fear, Fueling Literature.

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