on Compass, a novel by Mathias Énard, tr. by Charlotte Mandell (New Directions)
A slight fever, racing pulse, cramps, vague discomforts – what is ailing the musicologist Franz Ritter other than habitual melancholia and insomnia? Mathias Énard’s Compass comprises Ritter’s non-stop obsessions, accumulated doubts, and lingering desires, an unspooling, nightlong narrative. “Memory is the only thing I don’t lack,” he says, “the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body … I have to stop thinking out loud, if anyone ever recorded me, how shameful that would be: I’m afraid of being taken for a madman … The guy who talks to his radio and his laptop. Who has conversations with Mendelssohn and his cup of acidic Red Love [tea].”
The reader, eavesdropping on his unguarded remarks, is also in a shameful position, violating his febrile privacy. But once Énard’s immersive prose gets a grip on you, there’s no turning back. At the core of Ritter's tale is his unrequited, 17-year love for Sarah, a brilliant Oriental studies scholar with whom he has traveled. Having just received a copy of her latest monograph posted from Borneo, he plummets into recollections of their trips to Istanbul, Teheran, Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra and Jerusalem. Just as they journeyed to archaeological sites, Ritter’s sleepless plundering of memory is an excavation of his intriguing, troubled, and conflicting experiences with Orientalism.
Early in the telling, Ritter voices a familiar indictment of colonialism: “Europe sapped Antiquity under the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Egyptians. Our triumphant nations appropriated the universal with their monopoly on science and archaeology, dispossessing the colonized populations by means of this pillage of a past that, as a result, they readily experienced as alien: and so brainwashed Islamist wreckers drive tractors all the more easily through ancient cities since they combine their profoundly uncultivated stupidity with the more or less widespread feeling that this heritage is an alien, retroactive emanation of foreign powers.”
But complexity is both Énard’s purpose and mode – and it is Sarah who leads him to a more nuanced and challenging view of alterity as a “border-identity … a fertile contradiction” in oneself. Just as The Thousand and One Nights is a “catalog of dreams,” Compass reveals itself as Ritter’s restless vision of his life within history and his moment’s political violence. Sarah as both Scheherazade and The Beloved points to the blending of cultures, the profound influence of one on the other, the smudging of identity. Ritter’s monologue is rife with mentions of composers and writers who were influenced by the East. Another famous hypochondriac, Marcel Proust, alluded to the Nights and the Orient over 200 times in his Search.
While the Nights delights through its charms – “urbane, wonderful, abundant, erotic” – he also acknowledges, and is equally influenced by, Muhammad Asad’s Road To Mecca -- “emptiness and transcendence” in the bottomless dark of his own interminable night. Compass sways on this pendulum. No wonder that Ritter responds to the writings of the melancholics – Hedayat, Kafka, Rimbaud, and most of all, Pessoa who wrote with many names, heteronyms such as Alvaro de Campos who, like Ritter, enjoyed his opium on occasion and wrote his great poem “Opiary,” the fourth stanza of which reads in Richard Zenith’s translation:
It’s before I take opium that my soul is sick.
To feel life is to wilt like a convalescent,
And so I seek in opium’s consolation
An East to the east of the East.
This is the imaginary East that Sarah will not permit to be disparaged or attacked by the more strident adopters of Edward Said’s view of Orientalism. The second time his name appears in Compass, Ritter says, “Said’s theories had become, despite themselves, one of the most subtle instruments of domination there are: the question was not whether Said was right or wrong, in his vision of Orientalism; the problem was the breach, the ontological fissure his readers had allowed between a dominating West and a dominated East, a breach that, by opening up well beyond colonial studies, contributed to the realization of the model it created, and that completed a posteriori the scenario of domination which Said’s thinking meant to oppose.”
Of course, one knows a priori the objections to this statement. While Sarah and Ritter advocate for the blurring of identities, the dispossessed can’t afford such luxuries. Their bodies are targeted by identity. But this tension, and several others baked into Compass, are the book’s mesmerizing pulse-beat. Énard has created a dream-world for us that traffics in the arts, current events, travel, love and madness – and it is our desire to chase and enter the dream-state that matters.
Pessoa/de Campos: “Why did I visit the India that exists, / If there’s no India but the soul I possess?”
Énard was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt for Compass (Boussole) in 2015. France’s bloody history as a colonizer, barely acknowledged there, doesn’t exactly get a reprieve from the novelist, but his emphasis on the beauty of the amorous, embracing imagination (Sarah is French) must have helped in the voting. “The Orient is an imaginal construction,” says Ritter, “an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are. It is naïve to think, Sarah continued in a loud voice, that this repository full of Oriental images is specific to Europe today. No. These images, this treasure, chest, are accessible to everyone and everyone adds to it, according to cultural productions, new sketches, new portraits, new music.” In the next breath, he describes their experience in Tehran during the fall of the Shah.
The rhythm of language is Énard’s unmentioned subject, the flow of words and sentences that both transports and comprises the imagination. His prose propels. Are we supposed to absorb all these facts and anecdotes about obscure European travelers to the east, and ways in which Liszt, Beethoven, Berlioz, Massenet and so many others incorporated eastern themes to their scores? Or how Balzac, Heine, Hugo, Stendahl, Benn, Trakl, Hölderlin and Lamartine did the same in literature?
Sarah would tease and annoy Ritter with this question: “So, have you found your bearings yet?” One needs a compass to find the way through these complications. Meanwhile, Compass crashes over the reader.
[Published March 28, 2017. 451 pages, $26.95 hardcover]