The China Club is unusually packed. Art Basel has opened in Hong Kong today, and anyone who is anyone in the art world has a table reserved. On the occasion of la Fête de la Francophonie, the French Consulate is hosting a lunch in honour of Boualem Sansal at the China Club.
Within five minutes of my arrival, Servane Gandais, attachée de coopération pour le français, enters, greets me with “la bise” and introduces me to Boualem Sansal. Sansal is the winner of le Grand Prix du roman 2015* awarded by l’Académie Française for his latest novel, 2084: La fin du monde (2084: The End of the World; translated by Alison Anderson).
Unlike in his photos where his hair is always slightly disheveled, the Algerian writer has his long silver mane combed back tidily into a ponytail. He is in his signature denim shirt, this time with a black blazer over it. These days, many look ten to twenty years older than their photos posted online, but Sansal looks just the same, curiously, he looks somewhat “Chinese” in person.
Sansal is the first awardee of the said prize and the first Algerian I have met and new experiences, no matter what kind, are always memorable. A few years ago, I met Gao Xingjian, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, over an intimate lunch at the French Residence. I remember being surprised that a man whose writing is so controversial could be so quiet in person. I had commented on this to the then Consul of Culture, Jacques Soulillou. Jacques had replied, “A lot of writers are like that, their words are their weapons.”
And here I am, lunching with yet another literary heavyweight. I could not help but compare his demeanour to Gao’s. Sansal is soft-spoken but more chatty. He has been travelling all around China the past three weeks, and just before that in Greece, and yet this 67-year-young man does not show any signs of fatigue.
I am frankly curious about his “Chinese” features, and careful not to offend, I ask whether there would be a typical Algerian face and whether he is one. He says “No, I look Chinese. I resemble my mother who looks very Chinese. We probably had some Chinese ancestors. A typical Algerian looks Arab, more brown than black-skinned, and there are also many who look Caucasian.”
He goes on to say that “a typical looking Algerian would be someone like Albert Camus”, the Nobel laureate whose works have now achieved a canonical permanence, and who just so happened to be his primary school teacher when he was nine years old. Sansal reminisces about Camus “he is extremely good looking—a charming “draguer” (French for “womaniser”)—who always had women clamouring over him, at least ten of them a week.”
Ching-Fang Hu, director of the Kwang Hwa Information and Culture Center, who is also at the lunch asks him why he chooses to write his books in French and not his mother tongue, when many claim that French could be seen as the language of the coloniser in his case.
Sansal replied: “Most if not all writers have pondered this question. But I think the question for a writer is whether he is qualified to write on the subject”—in Sansal’s case, criticism of his own country. I wonder to myself, in the digital age, where everyone is a content creator, this question hits close to home: is it possible to ask that people be qualified before they publish anything? Would that be accused of promoting self-censorship?
I muse on my meeting with Gao a few years back, with actress and songwriter Jane Birkin earlier this month, and now my lunch with Boualem Sansal. What dawns on me is that they are all foreign artists who have been propelled to the top of the art world by their use of French language or association with French arts.
For those who are familiar with French arts, be it music, literature or visual arts, a large percentage of famous artists from different periods of time are foreigners who have spent time in France, in particular Paris.
No doubt, art knows no borders and France has always been a breeding ground for artists, but does France attract artistic excellence or does France have the golden touch to all things art? In the midst of the French presidential elections, it seems that the question of ‘France for all or a France for French’ is in many a mind.
*Le Grand Prix du Roman is a French literary award, created in 1918, and given each year by the Académie française, the preeminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language, established in 1635. It is one of the oldest and most prestigious literary awards in France.
See also: 5 Minutes With Paper Artist Pauline Yau