Dare to read his different novels

A whole book written in a single sentence? Author challenges with both style and content

Dare to read his different novels
Leipzig Book Fair Opening

French writer Mathias Énard’s ambitious novels are the kind that often draw divergent responses: over-the-top adulation, in certain instances, or lukewarm and even dismissive verdicts in others. 

Take, for instance, Zone, his cult novel, first published in French in 2008, about which one reviewer wrote: “The novel of the decade, if not of the century.” 

A critic in The Guardian was less impressed, concluding his critique with an indifferent summation: “You might have to make your own mind up on this one.” 

I read Zone some years after it first came out in translation in 2010 and immediately became a fan of Énard and a devoted reader. 

My own attempt at writing a critique of the novel never went anywhere beyond this first sentence: “In a world in which there is less and less reason to read fiction, (if you read a book from the World Literature series, you might have read them all), a universe saturated by more and more social media distractions, riveting television that seems to have come straight out of Dickens, how are you going to convince anyone to read a novel, a 517-page novel, a one-sentence 517-page novel, about someone travelling on the train from Milan to Rome?” 

Yet it was a novel I recommended to all the people in my reading circles, although only one or two got to read it.  

Perhaps the reason why Zone confounded some critics and enthused others is its sheer ambition and the demands it makes on the reader who has to sit down and read a novel rendered in just one sentence.

Actually, there is a brief respite for the reader when the sentence is broken by a short novel-within-a-novel. Yet to speak about reading the novel as painful is misleading as, after 10 pages or so, the reader begins to grasp the rhythms of the literary experiment Énard has conjured. 

The other reason some readers find it baffling might be that so little actually happens in Zone, apart from the narrator’s encounter with a “madman” at the Rome train station who, on seeing him, cries out: “Comrade one last handshake before the end of the world.” 

All its action — the atrocity of the wars in the Balkans, the violence of colonialism in the Middle East and Algeria, etc — play out in the narrator’s head as he travels by train. 

Since Zone, two others have followed, Street of Thieves — a novel straddling the Mediterranean narrated by a Moroccan teenager who ends up travelling to Spain — and Compass, a novel in the Orientalist tradition, narrated by a music scholar, about how the cultures of the East and West have interacted over the centuries. 

Although Zone is about a train ride between Milan and Rome, much of  it is focused on the Arab world. 

There is clearly a pattern here. Énard finds the other — the Arab and the Mediterranean worlds, fascinating. Indeed, in the 1990s, he lived in that world — Iran, Syria and Lebanon — and holds a doctorate in Iranian studies. 

Énard lives in Spain now and is a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona and also runs a Lebanese restaurant in the city. 

Apart from Persian and Arabic, Énard is fluent in several languages, including English, German, Spanish, Catalan and, of course, his native French. 

In some ways, you could say, Énard’s career invites the obvious question that has become topical in the last decade or so, that of cultural appropriation. 

Gravediggers Cover

Can (and should) a European man tell the story of the Arab? Can a man tell the story of a woman? 

Does my gender and the obvious benefits accrued to me as a man — the patriarchy — disqualify me from writing about women? 

(Aside: For a long time, the Cape Town-based Somali writer Nuruddin Farah was thought to be a woman because of how sensitively he wrote about women.) 

Is it only Africans who should tell the story of Africans? Is it permissible for a white man to tell the story of the darker other? 

And, speaking as a Zimbabwean partly of Shona origin, does the fact that some of the most important works on the mbira, and the music inspired by the instrument, have been done by white men: the American scholar Paul Berliner, the South African ethno-musicologists Hugh Tracey and his son Andrew, and the American journalist, and Thomas Mapfumo’s biographer, Banning Eyre — mean their works are of suspect provenance and their motives dubious just because they are of the same hue as the white men who terrorised us in Rhodesia?   

Is it enough to say, “Yes, it’s fine, as long as it’s done with integrity and the active participation of the subjects?” 

And how much agency, anyway, does a mbira player with little education, from deep in the countryside, have? 

If these questions have become urgent, indeed, insurgent, in recent times it is because for long the story told by men, white men, about Africa and the darker other, has been less than flattering and a tool used to justify the wholesale usurping of the other’s resources and the colonisation and enslavement of their being.  

In some ways, The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild (Fitzcarraldo Editions), Énard’s latest novel, is quite some departure from his output of the last decade. 

At its centre is an ethnographer, the 30-year-old PhD candidate David Mazon, who has moved from Paris to the countryside in the west of France to study its culture. 

An actual white man doing ethnographic studies on other white people! Shock and awe! 

In ways in which yesteryear’s anthropologists in colonial expeditions to the so-called “New World” would have found eerily familiar, Mazon decides to call his place of study “The Savage Mind”.  

Its real name Mazon finds amusing and “that it is far enough in the arse end of nowhere to be interesting”, presumably to a Parisian like him. 

Every so often the anthropologist sets down his thoughts and impressions of the place and its inhabitants in his field notebook in a breezy style. 

The fact that he thinks that all “green low-growing crops are lucerne”, and that he can’t tell radishes from cabbages, is no impediment to his ethnology of a farming settlement. 

He gets to meet the village’s inhabitants and, after one subject makes him nanny her grandfather, Mazon borrows the words of the Polish-born anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 to 1942) to express his sense of outrage: “On the whole my feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to ‘Exterminate the Brutes’.” 

One of the people he becomes acquainted with is the mayor of the village, Martial, an undertaker by profession. He holds rather reactionary views. Immigrants, he says, “Should abide by French customs … Soon we’ll have to ask their permission to eat pork,” he says. 

“They come over here, they exploit the system, but they won’t make an effort to integrate.” 

When he isn’t making right-wing comments, Martial is involved in a conference attended by only undertakers. 

The middle section of the novel, its beating heart, is a raucous, three-day party known as the Annual Banquet of Our Guild (Should only undertakers tell the story of undertakers?). 

While the undertakers are taking part in the party, “the Wheel cease[s] from turning!”; that is, in these three days and nights when they quaff down flagons of wine and other liquors and eat choice meats and other delectable food, there is a truce between humans and death.  

But there is not just drink and food but also deliberations on topics such as eco funerals (“do it cleanly for the planet”) and whether to accept women into the guild. 

The change of focus sees the narrative style change from the field notebooks to a lush, carnivalesque style that would have made 16th century French bard François Rabelais, the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, sit up and take notice. 

(Why not? After all, the novel is set in Rabelais country.) 

This section undergirds another concern of the book — endless births and deaths: “In our former lives, we have all been earth, stone, dew, wind, tree, insect, fish, turtle, bird and mamma, so said the Buddha and through this mechanism, we are allowed to take in histories going back many eras back. So that wild boar mating in the snow was, in its previous lives, a landlady, a bombardier, a one-eyed well digger and many other selves.” 

The book’s end, when the narrator decides to settle in the village with one of its daughters, while I suspected it, still caught me by surprise. 

“It just happened,” Mazon writes, “the way a plant sprouts; you’re not paying attention and then, suddenly, there it is right in front of you.” 

 In The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers Guild, as with Zone and Compass, Énard shows that he is a consummate thinker, a daring experimenter and storyteller whose work should be known beyond the narrow confines of aficionados and devoted readers.

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