In Mathias Enard’s novel “Compass” the elusive specter of the East is fully exposed. However, not in a way that would satisfy the obsessed orientalist. From the opening lines of the follow-up to Enard’s masterpiece “Zone,” “Compass” thrills the reader lyrically and incites debate over the true homogeneity of both Western demography and culture.
“We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror…”
With this exposition, Enard exposes us to his Proust-like prose, while forcing the reader to consider: is the cultural divide between East and West a smoky, impenetrable wall, as many xenophobic leaders would suggest erecting, or is it a cloud of combination and integration, long since established? Enard seems to indicate the latter.
“Compass” is dreamlike, ironically because the action takes place over a single sleepless night. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist and obsessed orientalist, restlessly paces his apartment and turns over in bed for a period of a few hundred pages, remembering his escapades across Europe and through the Middle East with the help of talismans in his apartment and the music of now destroyed cities.
Ritter pulls us through his memories in between his own hallucinogenic discussions with himself about Liszt and Ottoman poetry. Ritter paints a picture for the reader of his study of the intersection of Oriental and Occidental sound, through the framed window of his lonely, expat opium smoke. All of his experiences are framed with a comparison to his estranged lover, Sarah. Sarah is also an orientalist, but she seems at once an opposite and also a reflection of Ritter. Ritter’s mind is erratic, but his actions are safe and logical. Sarah’s mind is stolid and focused, yet her actions are wild and intuitive. Both are addicted to the seductive vortex of Eastern history. These two central characters represent the unparalleled contradictory nature of a division of East and West–Sarah and Ritter can be easily partitioned from each other, and yet they share so many similarities.
One half of the narrative, the memories of Ritter, is vibrant and takes advantage of all senses. The most captivating recollection is a long section in which the narrator remembers his time in Tehran as the Islamic Revolution was taking place, and the splendor of the Shah and the panhandle of Far-Middle Eastern ostentation fell to strict regulation. Depictions of lush gardens, oppressive heat, and lunatic professors driven mad by the evasiveness of the Eastern spirit are soothing and forbidding simultaneously.
Interrupting Ritter’s memories are dense studies of the musical, architectural, and literary obscurities of Austria, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. It is as if the insomniac is having debates with his own mind, a mind which is far riper with the stories of Ottoman guitarists and Andalusian explorers than the reader’s. Much like a novel from Sebald, or Eliot Weinberger, the present is displayed only with respect to the past. Sentences spanning multiple pages and meditations lasting for dozens can be so frequently riddled with allusions that the reader could not be expected to connect every historic iota. Sometimes, Enard hits his mark. The best of these sections are historical accounts of the lives of two Malian conscripts in World War I fighting on the edge of the Austrian Empire, and of a long and scathing rant criticizing the music and politics of Wagner. The reader can interpret this structural choice, a plot divided by tangential histories of Eastern and Western culture, as he may. Some may view it as a hindrance to the narrative, others as an accurate representation of the desperate mind of an insomniac in the early morning.
In a time where the question of what it is to be Western is at the forefront of political dialogue, Enard seems to prepare a cutting wake-up call, even for the reader who is not an expert on pre-Islamic poetry. Enard uses his signature dream-like style to make a point stunningly clear: West has forever been obsessed with the wonders of East, and East has forever been ingrained in everything that is considered West. The German composers favored by the Nazi Party were all veritably influenced by the flutes of Arabia, the great novel of Cervantes is at its heart an Arabian adventure, and many theories of the Enlightenment were derived from the tenets of Eastern thought. Even with its arduous lulls, “Compass” gains points with long and aurally pleasing sentences, especially paired with the most human of the historical accounts.