Winner of the Prix Goncourt, 'Compass' by Mathias Enard is brilliant and frustrating

Mathias Enard’s first novel published in English, “Zone” (2010), takes the form of a 500-page-long sentence, the internal monologue of a French Croatian spy on a train to the Vatican to sell a trove of secrets. His second, “Street of Thieves” (2014), is told from the point of view of a young Moroccan caught up in the hope and chaos of the “Arab Spring.” The new novel, “Compass,” which won the 2015 Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor, is as much an essay, a compendium, a rant and a polemic as it is a work of fiction.

The narrator, Franz Ritter, is an Austrian musicologist with a strong Orientalist bent and an even stronger obsession with a scholar of Orientialism, Sarah, with whom he has long been in (mostly) unrequited love. Recently diagnosed with an unspecified terminal illness, Ritter spends a long dark night of the soul in his apartment in his home city — Vienna, birthplace of Freud and Beethoven, once known as the “Porta Orientalis” in an insomniac reverie that pays homage to both “One Thousand and One Nights” and “In Search of Lost Time,” though this is a narrower range than it first seems, since Proust (Ritter tells us) was enamored of the “Nights” and used it as a model.

If Scheherazade and Proust are the novel’s East and West, its North and South are W.G. Sebald (erudite melancholia) and Thomas Bernhard (a blitzkrieg of spleen). Elsewhere on the crowded face of “Compass’ ” compass rose we find Borges, Pessoa, Xavier de Maistre, Sadegh Hedayat (“the greatest Iranian prose-writer of the twentieth century, the darkest, the funniest, the nastiest”), Balzac, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Musil, Napoleon, Berlioz, Liszt, Beethoven, Felicien David, Edward Said. To name a few. Every page is packed with biographical sketches, intellectual histories and lost episodes from the long, complicated, abusive romance that the West has for centuries been waging on the East.

Enard was wise to write about academics rather than, say, artists. Where the latter must obscure or sublimate their influences, the former are free to simply cite. If “Compass” had an index (more’s the pity that it doesn’t) you could use it as the syllabus for a PhD program. In fact, one conceit of the novel is that Ritter is writing (or imagining he might write) a work of scholarship (or a satire of a work of scholarship) to be called “On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient,” which is (at least in part) the novel we are reading, or it would have been if Ritter had written any of it down. This element of the book is, to be perfectly honest, irritating and a little bit dumb. It doesn’t work as a conceit or as a structural device. But a second — and better — structure also exists: time-stamps used in lieu of chapter titles, breaking the book into self-contained movements, which lends credence to Ritter’s notion that “music is time thought out” while also helpfully charting the progress of the night itself. The two structures overlap without acknowledging each other, imposing rival organizational principles on the same material.

Sarah, as mentioned above, is Ritter’s great love (though it’s less clear that he was ever hers) and so she serves as the emotional and moral compass of the novel’s title, or better still, the true north toward which Ritter’s own inner compass points. (The only actual compass he owns was given to him as a gag gift: It appears to always point east.) All Ritter’s happiest memories are of time spent with Sarah in the Middle East, especially Syria: “Aleppo was a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens, built around the train station, the southern branch of the Baghdad Bahn, which put Aleppo a week away from Vienna via Istanbul and Konya as early as January 1913….” Similarly loving attention is paid to Damascus — where Ritter lived for a time, renting a flat from a mentor of Sarah’s — and to Palmyra. Of course “today all these places are prey to war, burning or burnt…” even as Ritter himself is racked with disease, depression and regret. What is the dying body if not a homeland decimated by civil war?

Contemporary jihadist violence is “another horrible thing constructed by both East and West.” Indeed, the first call for global jihad in the 20th century, Ritter notes, was conceived of and instigated by Germany and Austria in 1914 as part of a concerted effort to “create disorder in the English, French, and Russian Muslim colonies.” In the 21st century, ISIS’ penchant for broadcasting beheadings and other spectacular acts of violence are designed to maximize Western fantasies of Eastern savagery. “We Europeans see them with the horror of otherness; but this otherness is just as terrifying for an Iraqi or a Yemenite. Even what we reject, what we hate, emerges in this common imaginal world. What we identify in these atrocious decapitations as ‘other’, ‘different’, ‘Oriental’, is just as ‘other’, ‘different’, and ‘Oriental’ for an Arab, a Turk, or an Iranian.” In fact it is while visiting a museum in Tehran that Ritter gets the chance to experience this phenomenon rather than merely observe it: His German accent is overheard by an Iranian Nazi (an exemplarily perverse product of Occident-Oriental cultural exchange, if ever there was one) who is thrilled to meet one of the originals to which his imitation consciously aspires. While Ritter laments “the violence of imposed identities,” Sarah calls for a search “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.”

Reading “Compass” brought me back over and over to a line from Borges: “A book which does not contain its counter book is considered incomplete.” This novel contains many books and all of their counter books. Ritter himself is a knot of contradiction: He implores his reader to “cherish the other in the self, recognize it, love this song that is all songs” but blithely remarks of his putative beloved, “Everything is her fault, the swish of a petticoat sweeps a man away more surely than a typhoon.” (Speaking of “the violence of imposed identities,” does anyone believe that Sarah has ever worn a petticoat?)

“Compass” is as challenging, brilliant, and — God help me — important a novel as is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room.

Taylor’s most recent book is the short story collection “Flings.”

Compass

by Mathias Enard

New Directions: 464 pp., $26.95

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