The Compass that Always Points East
Mathias Énard’s Zone, which I wrote about in 2011, is one of the best written and most urgent novels that I have read in this quickly aging century. Zone‘s Homeric scale attempts to encompass some of the twentieth century’s most critical themes within the framework of the narrator’s memories during a train ride from Milan to Rome. In Énard’s view, history is perennially unable to free itself from the eternal male infatuation with violence, warfare, and other forms of “manliness,” which in the last century alone resulted in misery and death for hundreds of millions of people. His narrator has fought in the Balkan wars and has served in the “intelligence” community, but has finally decided to opt out, sell his secrets, and retire to safety. Zone was also Énard’s heartfelt homage to a pantheon of Modernist writers, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and others. Written fours years after Zone, Street of Thieves was Énard’s next novel to appear in English. Using the first-person perspective of a young Muslim struggling to remain devout in a milieu of violent radical Muslims, it seemed one-dimensional after the richness of Zone.
Compass, published in France in 2015 and just released in English by New Directions, reverts to the style of Zone. Franz Ritter is an aging scholar, a musicologist who lives in Vienna and has dedicated his life to studying the influences of “the Orient” on western classical music. He’s an erudite, cosmopolitan, old-world gentleman. He’s also an old-school Orientalist, the type of person that Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Compass takes place during a single night when Ritter finds himself unable to sleep. Instead, he launches into an overnight voyage of fond reminiscences through a past that seemed to him fashionably risky, elegant, romantic, and, of course, full of scholarly gossip and feuding. Much of Compass is dedicated to Ritter’s warm, nostalgic memories of his Orientalist adventures, which took place in countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, but also at conferences in Vienna, Paris, and other European cities where the Orient was (and often still is) paternalistically stereotyped. One of the great pleasures of reading Compass is Énard’s astonishing command of literary, musical, historical, and other often fascinating references that pass through Ritter’s mind on this restless night. Énard manages to mention, quote, or discuss scores of composers, dozens of European and Middle Eastern writers, and an assortment of other notables that includes people as varied as Sigmund Freud and Edith Piaf, as well as many lesser known characters from history, such as the Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Austrian Orientalist (1774-1856).
Compass is also very much a story about Ritter’s unfailing love for Sarah, a younger academic who serves as Ritter’s foil. He admits that one of the major reasons he kept returning to the Middle East was to continue his brief flirtatious encounters with Sarah. Sarah appears to be a generation younger than Ritter and thus she represents a more modern type of scholar with more of a post-colonialist perspective. Her field of study seems to revolve around colonial history and thus, to her, the “Orient” is “an imaginal construction” that the West has used to obscure and excuse its colonial attitudes toward large chunks of the world. Unlike Ritter, who admits to being something of an “armchair scholar,” Sarah is a deeply engaged researcher, living as an insider in the places she studies. She understands the ethically flawed ways in which most non-European peoples were represented by previous generations of Orientalists.
One of the mementos in Ritter’s apartment is a compass that Sarah once gave him. This compass always points east rather than north and, much to Sarah’s amusement, followed by outright laughter, Ritter cannot figure out the secret. After much teasing, Sarah finally discloses that there is a second magnet hidden under the first, forcing the top magnet to align ninety degrees differently from the bottom one. Ritter’s response makes it clear that he doesn’t understand that Sarah is making gentle fun of his obsession with the Orient. “I didn’t see the point,” is all he can manage to think.
Énard includes nine photographs in Compass, something he did not do with Zone. Significantly, they all originate with Sarah. The images of book pages, documents, and postcards are all included in scholarly papers and in a letter that Sarah sent to him and which he reads in the wee hours of his sleepless night. Each image suggests the subtle ways in which European Orientalists tried to maintain a colonizing control over their “subjects.” For example, in a letter that Sarah writes Ritter after visiting Goethe’s house museum in Germany, she encloses a photograph of the first edition of Goethe’s book West–östlicher Divan (which might be translated as West-East Poetry Collection). She points out that the Arabic title on the left-hand page is intriguingly different since it translates as “The Eastern Divan by the Western Writer,” making it clear that this is “an oriental collection composed by a man from the Occident.”
In many ways, Compass follows a blueprint established with Zone. Both novels have narrators with iffy pasts and wide-ranging encyclopedic knowledge. (Ritter might almost be the retired version of Zone‘s Francis Mirković.) Both use the compression of time and space (a train ride, a sleepless night in a small apartment) to present an infinitely expansive universe of memories, ideas, histories, and characters. But there are risks to what Énard is doing in Compass. Where Zone plunges directly into the violence of the Balkan wars, Compass politely circumvents the terrorism and wars that have plagued the Middle East for a half century. Where Zone‘s Francis Mirković personally grapples with the major issues of his time, Franz Ritter engages in polite dinner conversation with fellow scholars and the occasional seduction in fine hotels and secluded conference sites.
Ritter is uncomfortably aware that the world in which he spent most of his life has irrevocably morphed into sectarianism and violence, although these are topics he is anxious to avoid. (“Thank God the news is over, back to music,” he thinks, listening to late night radio.) And he has also experienced what it is like to become the Other in someone else’s eyes. Late in the novel, a mullah stereotypes Ritter as a Nazi simply because he is “German” and the mullah assumes Sarah is a Jew simply because of her name. Suddenly the consequences of having “the violence of identity pinned on you by the other and uttered like a condemnation…” dawns on Ritter. Ritter also is beginning to recognize that his relationship with the Orient was often conducted out of sheer “colonialist pretentiousness,” that he underestimated the Assad regime, and utterly failed to anticipate the rise of jihadism and “the throat-slitters of the Islamic State.” In hindsight, he realizes that the West’s preoccupations with “the sensuality, the violence, the pleasure, the adventures, the monsters and djinns” of the so-called Orient made it impossible to understand any of these regions, their history, and their people on their own terms. “We are prisoners of images, of representations.” But every time he has one of these revelations he quickly returns to the enticing comforts of his past.
As much as it makes for captivating reading, I found it a little odd, if not unsettling, to be reading a 21st century book that so openly revels in its unrepentant, nostalgic Orientalist. This seemed especially curious when I got to the author’s dedication on the final page of the book. Among the acknowledgments to individuals are two other dedications. One is to “the Circle of Melancholy Orientalists” and the other “to the Syrian people.” I don’t quite know what to make of this. But I am starting to think that Énard’s goal here is to demonstrate just how tempting and easy it is to fall back into our own comfortable misperceptions and prejudices. At any rate, Compass is a rich, rewarding novel that really grew more on me during my second reading.