Even if I was that way inclined, Mathias Énard is just not my type. Yet of all those I’ve recently perused — Elif Şafak and Sahar Delijani among them — it is Énard I’ve been seeing in my sleep.
At least twice after being submerged in Compass — with this kind of writing, normal immersion is not an option — I sat across a table from the sturdy orientalist. We were in a remote archaeological site somewhere in the Levant, at the foot of some enormous, crumbling ziggurat. We spoke of symphony and Syria. Each time I woke wondering what it was about the book that had got so deeply to me.
It could be sheer originality and erudition. Beautifully conveyed in Charlotte Mandell’s effortless translation, the book’s mille-feuille melange of essayistic enquiry and anecdotal, fragmentary confession render a storyline unnecessary. Despite being in essence a rambling, interminable soliloquy, it is full of stunning one-liners. For example, “How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?”
It could be the voice of the narrator and main character. His uniquely engaging predicament: unidentified illness, abiding interest in opium, critical if amused perspective on fellow European scholars. Especially his hopeless love for one of them, a French Jewess named Sarah. Whether as a musicologist and ethnographer or as an Austrian. A lover of the orient. Or, that increasingly rare thing, a true cosmopolitan. Franz Ritter is utterly convincing.
It could be the book’s central metaphor: a compass that, instead of the familiar and the ordinary, points towards the other, the desirable, the unknown. Prior to the discovery of magnetic north, proto-compasses — depending on the sun — pointed east. At one point Sarah gives Franz a replica of Beethoven’s compass which is fitted in such a way that it points east instead of north. “You now own one of the rare compasses that point to the Orient,” she tells him mockingly, amused by his perplexity, “the compass of Illumination, the Suhrawardian artefact.”
It could be any and all of those things, but I suspect it is something both simpler and more complex. It is the way in which Compass suggests a refutation of Edward Said’s thesis in Orientalism. Using only fiction and literary creativity. Without a hint of polemic or contention. It redeems the innocence and legitimacy of exploration. It exposes cultural difference for the ideological cling film that it is. And it reaffirms the possibility of intermingling outside the realm of power.
Franz recounts how the “debate became stormy” when Sarah mentioned “the Great Name”. But “I had no opinion,” he says, “and I still don’t, I think; Edward Said was an excellent pianist”.