Actes Sud, 256 p., €21.80
From the magnificent Zone (1), we know that the literature of Mathias Énard catches up and stitches together this world that escapes us. Now the news is hot on Deserter’s heels: the invasion of Ukraine appears at the end, as if to confirm a story that began well before.
The work of Mathias Énard, a powerful creator and undoubtedly the most gifted of his generation, consists of exploring, with dense grace, the extent to which horrors surge. “Like waves on waters spread,” he writes about human violence. But a single being, sometimes, stems the fury. This amounts to redemption of the species, however fragile or provisional the merciful gesture may be.
Such turns out to be a deserting soldier, recruited for cruelty. An offended woman fleeing villainies converts him to a form of respect; up there, in the mountains overlooking a sea which could be the Mediterranean, in perhaps Orthodox lands – the simander and its mallet which invite to the liturgy are mentioned. The nauseating odors give way to seraphic sounds, those of nature left to itself rather than littered with shell casings and corpses.
In the spatio-temporal blur, this story of a chaotic and not self-evident redemption – the suspense will remain until the last pages – is woven, in a masterly way, with an event which takes place on September 10 and 11, 2001 This is a conference dedicated, near Lake Wannsee to the southwest of Berlin, to a mathematical genius: Paul Heudeber. This German communist, freed from Buchenwald in 1945, faithful to real socialism and living recluse in Pankow, drowned off the Catalan coast in 1995, while the war in Bosnia was coming to an end, in a Europe finished but unwilling not know it.
A Europe tormented by the memory of the camps as well as the wars of religion and which would, perhaps one day, be reduced to the fate of the former Yugoslavia, or even of Iraq as of Syria, to the extent that everything is therefore propagates, not in spite of the Mediterranean but because of it: “The sea could transmit cries, vibrations, waves so powerful that we would see them up to here on the surface of the water, we could read them, we could decipher the names of the dead, we could reach them by swimming. »
Join, suture everything that can and must be: the North and the South, the people and the shores, the sensitive experiences and the landscapes, animals and people, Baghdad in 1258 and New York in 2001, Eurovision and Mendelssohn, the bucolic and the heroic, the religious feeling capable of making one lose all humanity as well as finding it in extremis, the bursts of humor and the cataracts of despair, the breath taken away from the deserter confronted with deprivations and the unfailing contentment of the conference which is drowning in subsidies…
Such is the polyphonic and magnificently successful literary bet of Mathias Énard, which makes us dizzy without ever losing us. The writer juggles, regarding certain protagonists, with the first three persons of the singular, like a symphonist of the narrative relying on the solo instruments of the small harmony within the orchestra. His prose, harsh and sumptuous, sometimes resembles a prose poem – in particular chapter XXIII.
However, even for the most reluctant on the subject, Déserter is worth for its mathematical song. This is such a rare stitch, as writers have accustomed us to expressing their notions of sociology or philosophy. It is a question here of mending, in the same hymn, letters and science. Paul Heudeber, a fictional character surrounded by figures who have existed (from Emmy Noether to André Weil via Felix Hausdorff), was diluted in so-called socialism but sparkled in number theory.
Sailing from the secret music of mathematics to the face of war, Mathias Énard never ceases to confront the oppressive and infinite tragedy of History, from which he would like us to free ourselves.