Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt returns to readers with La Porte du ciel (Heaven’s Gate), the second volume in La Traversée des temps (Crossing Time), his saga that revisits the history of humanity. Still enveloped in the story of the immortal Noam, readers now leave the Neolithic to focus on the civilisation of Mesopotamia, a rich and all-but-forgotten population to whom today’s men and women owe their earliest major developments but, equally, some of their failings.
Does the word “Mesopotamia” suggest something rather vague to you? Is it perhaps associated with a distant and half-remembered history lesson? If so, don’t feel bad about it, says Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt in his interview with Le Soleil.
Most of what we know about this Prehistoric civilisation is actually “pretty recent”, observes the Franco-Belgian writer. Research dates mainly from the early 1950s. It was only really then that historians began to look seriously at the culture and daily life of this Middle Eastern people settled between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Today, we would situate them on the territory of Iraq.
Although Schmitt doesn’t go so far as to say that literature has deliberately avoided Mesopotamia, he admits that writers most certainly didn’t know about it.
“Even the people who wrote the Bible talk about “Egyptians” when they don’t know, although they’re often talking about Mesopotamians. [...] The civilisation was dead, you know, when people began to talk about it. There was a kind of substitution effect. [...] I think that’s how fiction hasn’t had time to embrace the period,” explains the Goncourt Academy member.
Although, in creating Heaven’s Gate, Schmitt conducted a good deal of research into the period and the people who lived in the region, he also wanted to let loose his writer’s “dreams”, keen to add flesh to the historical facts, the bare bones as it were, of his work.
“The landscapes and characters suddenly take shape through the schematic information I receive. At that point, another part of my brain is at work. And, I have to admit, that’s more important for a novelist,” he laughs.
He thus had a lot of fun putting words to the settings and situations that belong to Mesopotamia. Noam, for example, arrives in the city of Babel and encounters the tyrant Nemrod who wants to build a vast tower that will reach the sky: the Tower of Babel. He will also witness the construction of the earliest cities and thus the first frontiers between the urban world and the country.
Beyond the pleasure of writing and imagining these vanished times, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt also wanted to shed light on a section of the past in which European and American populations still have their roots.
“It was a time when humanity leapt forward and ushered in an era humankind was never going to leave. [...] Human beings entered a phase that continues to define us to this day, and today we no longer question it,” he deplores, recalling that it saw the emergence of major technologies, like writing, astronomy and the “domestication” of water and fields.
But it was also when less admirable concepts were spawned: the invention of slavery and the division of social classes.
The key point about Crossing Time is to “view the present through eyes of the past”, and it’s no accident that the central character in the saga is amazed at the progress of civilisation. For Schmitt,