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). Read more