The West’s love-hate relationship with Islam and the Arab world dominates the race for France’s top literary award, the Goncourt, with the winner chosen Tuesday over a lunch at a Paris restaurant that can often turn heated.
The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal (pictured above), long the odds-on favourite for the prize — the oldest and most prestigious in the French speaking world — failed to make the top four last week with his dystopian vision of a future Islamic caliphate, “2084”, which many critics have compared to George Orwell’s “1984”.
Yet the four novels still in contention all deal in one way or another with the Middle East or the long twilight of France’s colonial entanglement in the region.
Sansal had the strong backing of Michel Houellebecq, France’s most famous literary provocateur, himself a Goncourt winner in 2010, who praised the book’s critique of “true Islamic totalitarianism”.
His own latest work, the bestselling “Submission”, controversially imagines France electing an Islamic government in 2022, with the writer later denying it was a satire and admitting he was Islamophobic. “Yes, but the word phobia means fear rather than hatred,” he told The Guardian newspaper.
His publisher told AFP Monday that the book has so far sold 650,000 copies in French, an almost unheard of number for a literary novel.
The four books left on the Goncourt shortlist are less confrontational than Sansal’s biting portrait of a all-powerful theocratic state constantly in search of internal and external enemies.
Nevertheless the new favourite, “Les Preponderants” (roughly translated as “The Principals”), by veteran Franco-Tunisian author Hedi Kaddour is not without its own hard edge.
Set in the Tunisia of the 1920s as resentment at French rule grows, it was joint winner last week of the Academie Francaise prize given by the lofty guardians of the French language known as the “immortals”, who rule over grammar and which new words enter their dictionary.
The fact that the Goncourt jury chose to reveal its final four novels in Tunis, where Kaddour, 70, was born, did not go unnoticed.
Jury president Bernard Pivot said the highly symbolic announcement in the city’s Bardo Museum, where jihadist gunmen killed 21 tourists and a policeman in an attack last March, was to show support for the country’s fledgling democracy in the very place “where the most cruel and stupid tyranny had shown its contempt for freedom”.
Tobie Nathan’s “Ce pays qui te ressemble” (“This country that you resemble”) is also said to have its fans on the jury, with its tales of the Jewish Cairo of his childhood and the lost idyll of the city’s cosmopolitan tolerance.
A scholar of both Arabic and Persian, Mathias Enard takes on similar territory with “Boussole” (“Compass”), weaving a poetic eulogy to the long history of cultural exchanges between East and West.
The book by the only woman on the shortlist, Nathalie Azoulai, also has a Middle Eastern twist, riffing off the character of Berenice, the Roman-era queen of Palestine from Racine’s romantic tragedy in “Titus n’aimait pas Berenice” (“Titus does not love Berenice”).
Only six women writers have ever won the prize in its 112-year history, including Lydie Salvayre last year for “Pas pleurer” (“Don’t cry”), which pipped Algerian Kamel Daoud’s much-admired Arab take on Albert Camus’ classic “L’Etranger” (“The Outsider”).
“It’s very open. We choose with our heart and our choice is not necessarily everyone’s choice,” said writer Philippe Claudel, one of the 10-strong jury.
In keeping with tradition, the final decision will be made at the belle epoque Drouant restaurant in central Paris after the jury have chewed the fat over a lunch of lamb stew with olives and sundried tomatoes.