French author Mathias Enard already has form for vast, labyrinthine novels that take place over the course of a few hours. His 2008 opus Zone, written in one epic 500-page sentence, had a former mercenary in a Croatian militia reflecting on the tragedy of his brutal existence during an express train ride from Milan to Rome. That novel received lavish praise from many French and British critics for its historical scope and avant-garde chutzpah.
Now we have Enard’s latest, Compass, which took France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2015. Crisply translated by Charlotte Mandell (as was Zone), Compass is Proustian in its set-up. Enard’s narrator, Franz Ritter, is a middle-aged Austrian musicologist who suffers from an unnamed, possibly mortal illness. The novel takes place during one sleepless night of memory, dream and reflection in his Viennese apartment.
Ritter’s perception of himself as a socially awkward, underachieving mummy’s boy is the joke of the novel. “I’m a poor, unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about,” he moans. In fact, Ritter’s subject is as fascinating as it is timely. During extended stays in Turkey, Syria and Iran, he has come to believe that revolutions in western music, literature and art during the 19th and 20th centuries could not have happened without absorbing numerous influences from the Orient.
The outliers who precipitated this so-called “irrigation” included the French composer Félicien David, who became famous in 1844 after the Paris premiere of his symphony Le Désert, which transcribed the Arabic rhythms he had encountered on his travels between Cairo and Beirut. Ritter also has a yen for the 19th-century Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, whose translations of Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature were devoured by great writers such as Goethe, Hugo and Balzac (who dedicated his novel The Collection of Antiquities to his Austrian friend).
The title of Enard’s novel nods to a replica Ritter is given of a compass Beethoven kept on his desk, which was altered so that it always pointed due east and not to the north.
Enard, who spent two years living in Syria before the ongoing war and has himself translated novels from Arabic and Persian, occasionally overstuffs Compass with the kind of Orientalist arcana that might be better suited to a scholarly essay. However, when he concentrates on storytelling, as he does in the novel’s second half, there are passages of pure delight with rare insight into the human condition.
In one, Ritter remembers an afternoon he spent in Tehran before the Iranian revolution at the villa of an alcoholic professor, Gilbert de Morgan. He is accompanied by a beautiful Frenchwoman, Sarah, who is studying for her thesis in orientalism. Ritter is hopelessly in love with Sarah but has so far been spurned in all his advances. As day turns to night, an increasingly sozzled Morgan recounts how he collaborated with the Iranian authorities to have a brilliant French student expelled from the country so that he could seduce the young man’s Iranian girlfriend.
“We couldn’t manage to leave any more than Morgan could finish his story,” recalls Ritter. “He continued his confession, perhaps just as surprised by his ability to speak as by ours to listen. Despite all my signaling, Sarah, although revolted, remained clinging to her wrought-iron garden chair.”
It is in passages such as these that Enard puts much-needed flesh on the bones of Ritter’s pet project — an essay titled “On the divers forms of lunacie in the Orient” (each of the novel’s five chapters is a riff on the same theme). The lunacy, as Enard describes it, began when Napoleon entered the Orient for the first time, “dragging science behind his army into Egypt”.
In the novel, Sarah suggests that Europeans have grown obsessed by the “otherness” of Islam, while failing “to admit not only the terrifying violence of colonialism, but also all that Europe owed to the Orient — the impossibility of separating them from each other, the necessity of changing our perspective”.
It is a plea for humanity that does not discount the rise of Isis but instead recognises its form of barbarity as an aberration — something universally repellent. Or, as Ritter puts it: “What we identify in these atrocious decapitations as ‘other’, ‘different’, ‘Oriental’ is just as ‘other’, ‘different’, and ‘Oriental’ for an Arab, a Turk or an Iranian.”
Compass, by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell, Fitzcarraldo, RRP£14.99, 480 pages