Compass by Mathias Énard (tr. Charlotte Mandell). New Directions. $26.95, 464pp.
In 1849, the year after the French set off a second wave of revolutions across the continent, Gustave Flaubert embarked upon a tour of the Middle East. The ambitious twenty-eight-year-old arrived in Cairo with eyes wide and imagination teeming. “What can I say? How can I write to you about it? I have scarcely recovered from my initial astonishment,” an early letter reports. He continues:
It is as if you had been dropped fast asleep right into the middle of one of Beethoven’s symphonies, when the brass is deafening, the basses are rumbling away and the flutes are sighing. The detail gets hold of you, grips you tight, squeezes you, and the more engrossing it is the less are you able to take in the ensemble. Then, little by little, it begins to harmonize and fall into place according to the laws of perspective.
Flaubert contracted syphilis in Beirut and blamed it on a Maronite, or perhaps a Turkish prostitute. Undaunted, he consummated a trip to a bath house with “a pockmarked young rascal wearing a white turban.” By the time he arrived in Istanbul, the chancres on his penis had merged into a single boil, which put a damper on his sex life. “That’s an aspect of the Eastern Question the Revue des Deux Mondes doesn’t dream of!” he wrote toward the end of his journey, a mite less amazed. He returned to Croisset a year later, a little worse for wear, and set to work on the story that would become Madame Bovary.
For contemporary readers, Flaubert’s tour is prickly with cliché. The theory of Orientalism, popularized by Edward Said’s landmark 1978 text, is something of a foregone conclusion in today’s literary debate. Said’s punch line—that the Orient has long been a historical stage upon which the West plays out its latent desires and fears—has leaped the gap from critical theory to conventional wisdom. The message isn’t “Hands off!” exactly, but the premise has certainly put an important warning in place for Western writing on non-Western subjects. Yet here we are, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, fully enmeshed in the Syrian migrant crisis, the rise of ISIS, and the return of Western right-wing populism, and it appears as though the Orient qua stage is set once again for a catastrophic showdown between East and West.
So it’s with no small amount of urgency that Mathias Énard’s Compass, an engrossing meditation on the cultural and historical tension between Europe and the Islamic world, arrives from New Directions in a gorgeous translation by Charlotte Mandell. Winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Compass is a post-Orientalist novel of ideas that locates the Western canon—Flaubert, the sentimental, if reckless, traveler detailed above, but also Borges, Liszt, Heine, Hugo, Goethe, Balzac, and many more—inside an intricate tableau of Eastern cultural influence and exchange. I call it “post-Orientalist” in the sense that Énard’s characters, a group of aging academics, are all working in the shadow of Said’s screed, in search of the theory’s new critical horizon.
Of the three Énard novels that have made their way into English thus far, Compass relies the least on its plotting. Where Zone’s breathless narrative turned on paranoia and intrigue, and Street of Thieves set upon (and frustrated) noir genre conventions, Compass strikes a path somewhere between Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and The Magic Mountain, which is to say, it is a moody fever dream of ideas. The novel’s speaker, Franz Ritter, a musicologist specializing in Romantic-period Orientalism, lies sick in his apartment in Vienna, sifting through the dreams and memories most meaningful to his life. “We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud,” he announces in the book’s opening lines, “seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror.” The Other implicit in Ritter’s “we” is never identified, though likely stand-ins are myriad: the reader, whose presence our speaker is always aware of; the Orient, against which Ritter mirrors the West as a metaphor for his own critical theories; and Sarah, an elusive French scholar after whom Ritter longs. We soon find that the latter character is the occasion for much of the novel’s plotting, detailed through Ritter’s crisscrossing of the Middle East, from Istanbul to Aleppo, Damascus to Tehran, and back again. As Ritter’s romantic and intellectual pursuit of Sarah gets tangled in marriages, conferences, and competing scholarship, Énard’s text folds in real and apocryphal journal excerpts, extensive notes on composers and authors, and woodcuts and photographs—all stretching from Middle Age Persian poetry to ISIS beheadings in present-day Syria.
Compass’s scope and erudition are astonishing—particularly when Énard drops any pretext of plot and shifts into a more essayistic voice—and the novel is simply riddled with barn burners. To wit: “[There] was graffiti here and there, I said anti-Semitism? He replied no, love”; “The terrifying nationalism of corpses”; “Music is time domesticated, reproducible time, time shaped”; “Tuberculars and syphilitics, there’s the history of art in Europe.” Said makes his own appearance as “the Great Name,” akin to “invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Like Mann, Énard balances his speaker’s arguments on an equilibrium between civilization (art, music, poetry, life) and chaos (war, greed, famine, death). We get an early glimpse of Ritter’s own theory of Orientalism through his musings on musicology. Figures like Beethoven and Liszt owe their innovations to the Romantic period’s fascination with the Orient’s alterity, smuggled into their art as a means of undermining “the dictatorship of church chant and harmony.” But the Orient’s influence on Western art isn’t direct; rather, artists are always caught in a tangle of influence upon influence, mistaken origins, smoke and mirrors, in a word, misrepresentations:
Berlioz never travelled to the Orient, but was, at the height of his twenty-five years, fascinated with Hugo’s Les Orientales. So there might be a second Orient, that of Goethe or Hugo, of people who know neither Oriental languages, nor the countries where they are spoken, but who rely on the works of Orientalists and travellers like Hammer-Purgstall, and even a third Orient, a Third-Orient, that of Berlioz or Wagner, which feeds on these works that are themselves indirect.
It’s only fitting, then, that when Flaubert enters Cairo, he also enters the music of Beethoven—a Third-Orient of its own.
This web of transaction and influence is not without its human toll. An excerpted study midway through the book explores the history of a journal entitled Jihad, which was distributed to Middle Eastern prisoners by German forces in the First World War in an effort to “‘re-use’ the colonial soldiers, after their hoped-for ‘re-conversion’ to the new holy war” framed against the Allies:
“Jihad, at first sight an idea that’s as foreign, external, exogenous as possible, is a long and strange collective movement, the synthesis of an atrocious, cosmopolitan history—God save us from death and Allah akbar, Red Love, decapitation and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Octet for Strings.”
For Ritter, the history of the modern world is a continuous exchange of ideas and melodies, fears and blood, rife with unintended consequence. It’s this added inversion of Orientalism—wherein the West not only mistakes the homegrown origins of its Orientalist cultural production but also abets in the destabilization of the East—which our narrator offers up as a lesson after Said’s.
What’s most arresting in all of this is the means by which Énard stages these ideas within the narrative itself. Ritter’s memories drift always toward a Middle East of his own creation, affixing the sights and sounds and smells of the streets alongside towering Western figures from his cohort’s intellectual life. Énard’s style is long, so it’s worth quoting an illustrative passage at length:
The round table overflowed with tourist guidebooks and cameras and you could just catch, in passing, in the conversations of the clients, the names T.E. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, and Charles de Gaulle—I can see Sarah again at the bar, black-stockinged legs crossed, on a stool, staring into the distance, and I know she’s thinking of Annemarie, the Swiss journalist-archaeologist: she’s picturing her in the same spot sixty years earlier, sipping an arak, after a good bath to rid herself of the dust from the road; she was arriving from a dig between Antioch and Alexandretta. Late at night, she writes a letter to Klaus Mann, which I had helped Sarah translate; a letter with the letterhead of this Baron Hotel that stilled reeked of nostalgia and decadence, just as today it reeks of bombs and death—I picture the closed shutters, riddled with shrapnel; the street with soldiers rushing down it, the civilians hiding, as well as they can, from the snipers and torturers . . .”
The associative logic in Énard’s sentences mimics the flow—and boundaries—of the narrator’s sleepless mind. Ritter’s remembered Syria is a host of Western imagery: tourists amid the memory-making debris of their travels, discussing Lawrence and Christie and de Gaulle. Even the leap of perspective to Sarah yields only more West. The passage concludes on the civil war raging in present-day Syria, tumbling apart into a heap of horrifying images. The terror of our contemporary reality looms large, threatening to engulf the text, and it can’t be brushed aside with a bit of nostalgia.
Compass offers no easy answers, but if there’s a clear way out of this seemingly endless tangle of history, theory, memory, and horror, it comes from Sarah, who should have the last word. Toward the novel’s finish, Ritter and Sarah meet for lunch at a Turkish restaurant in Paris, where she outlines her vision for an Orientalism of the twenty-first century: “We had to find . . . beyond the stupid repentance of some or the colonial nostalgia of others, a new vision that includes the other in the self. On both sides.”
Hal Hlavinka is a writer and critic living in New York City, where he is the event coordinator at Community Bookstore. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Tin House Blog, and Music & Literature, among other places.
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