Music, medievalism, and the challenges of orientalism in Mathias Énard’s Boussole


Mathias Énard’s 2015 novel Boussole, narrated by a musicologist, has been celebrated as a ‘love letter between East and West.’ This essay explores how the novel makes complex, contrapuntal use of medieval literary and historical legacies to explore orientalism as transcultural romance but, more than this, to expose the complexities of the West’s rapprochement with the East in the 21st century. Published in the same year as major attacks in Paris by Al-Qaeda and ISIL, it grapples with two opposing impulses: on the one hand, the cosmopolitan desire to emphasize cross-cultural empathy, admiration, and fascination in order to combat Islamophobic suspicion, distance, and dehumanization; and on the other hand, the need to acknowledge Europe’s implication in the legacies of colonialism and to calibrate with honesty the uneven distribution of power underpinning orientalism.

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  1. 1.

    English translations of the French interview are my own. For another review linking Énard’s novel to a musical composition in which Eastern and Western traditions are interwoven, see Adam Shatz (2017). Shatz discusses Boussole alongside John King’s Free Palestine, which borrows Arabic modes and rhythms.

  2. 2.

    Page references refer respectively to the 2017 English translation and 2015 French original.

  3. 3.

    Jonathan D. Bellman (2011, 422) discusses Said’s training in Cairo under Ignace Tiegerman.

  4. 4.

    The novel’s English translation translates trouvères as ‘troubadours.’ Although this is a better-known word in English, its general meaning as ‘medieval wandering singer’ does not fully draw out the sense in which the troubadour and trouvère traditions were both shared and different. For a full account, see Paden (2006).

  5. 5.

    Despite Franz’s medievalist genealogy for orientalism, his account of the looting of Palmyran antiquities by ISIL shows that it regards pre-Islamic Syrian monuments as charged with Western values. My thanks to the anonymous reviewer for this point.


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D’Arcens, L. Music, medievalism, and the challenges of orientalism in Mathias Énard’s Boussole. Postmedieval 10, 498–512 (2019).

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