Compass by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell)
Published 3/27/17 (Paperback to be published 2/20/18) by New Directions Publishing
Compass by Mathias Énard, famous for Zone, is a wonderful reverie about a number of things, primarily music, the Orient, and a relationship. The main character, a musicologist named Franz Ritter who is suffering from an unnamed illness, can’t fall asleep in his Vienna apartment. The book is a record of his inner monologue during this night of no sleep, where he remembers specific events, trips, and concepts that have had a big impact on him. The text sort of meanders along and then suddenly Franz will bring us to Aleppo, where he was doing research as a young man, or to Tehran, where he and his very close friend Sarah (who comes up very often during the book) went on a trip a number of years ago. Franz “tells” (the difference between this book and, say, Remembrance of Things Past, which reads very similarly to Compass, is that we know that the former is being written by the narrator, whereas Compass is not) us about his comic visits to the Doctor’s office, and on the next page he is reading an academic article that Sarah wrote and attached in an email she sent to him. He pairs everyday, inconsequential remarks about anxieties or quotidian events with prolonged meditations on the problems with scholarship on Orientalism and figures like Hegel. The combination of the casual but experimental, and not overly indulgent form of Compass with the wealth and color of the concepts, places, and people discussed make for an excellent book, both a pleasure to read and very intellectually stimulating.
Compass is straight crack (or opium? It is one of the most recurring themes in the book) for any humanities academic, especially anybody doing work in Comparative Literature or East-West studies. There are a plethora of references to various artistic and historical figures, from Rumi and Sadegh Hedayat to Balzac and Edward Said. Franz and Sarah are both familiar with multiple languages, including French, German, and Arabic. And finally, the concept of Orientalism, which has a ton of political and cultural baggage, is discussed in a really loving but knowledgeable way. Franz and Sarah are both “Orientalists,” in that a lot of their study involves researching Eastern culture(s) from a Western perspective, but they are both careful to recognize that the Orient is not one singular scientific object that can be understood as such. While both Franz and Sarah love and to an extent romanticize the East, the book is commenting more on Orientalism as a historical practice of cultural study, as well as how various artists and historical figures from the West were influenced by their time in the East, rather than the Orient itself. One could critique the book for being a Western-centric book about the Orient, but it would be even more problematic and disingenuous if it tried to not be Western-centric. But this is the last time I use the word “problematic,” one of the most intellectually lazy adjectives out there, in this review.
Franz enters the world of Orientalism through his studies as a musicologist. He went to Syria when he was younger in order to study Eastern music, and was influenced by a lot of his Western friends who were also there studying to dive deeper into Syrian culture. In the present day, he blasts Iranian music in his apartment, which pisses off his neighbors. He talks about various composers who spent time out East. He discusses the racism of Wagner and the criminal underappreciation of Mendelssohn. But my favorite musical moments in the text are when he uses music as a basis to make metaphors concerning life or time. I’m a sucker for these sorts of phrases, such as, when Énard writes, “Life is like a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.” Or, later, when he writes, “Music is time domesticated, reproducible time, time shaped.” In the end, for Franz, music is the main thing he has to help him make sense of the world. He is admittedly not too talented at anything other than thinking critically about music and, if one can be, listening to music. He recalls a time when he was trying to impress a girl he was attracted to while he was studying in Syria. She asked him what he did, and he said that he was a musicologist. She had no idea what that was, and asked if he played any instruments, to which he embarrassingly answered no.
Compass is also, obviously, very much a book about place, and how one’s time spent in a certain area can affect them in various ways. In fact, Compass is largely about the negotiation between identity and place. Place can cause someone to completely lose themselves, and can urge somebody to take on new political commitments. One example, in the text, is the case of Fred “Farid” Lyautey, a Frenchman who studied in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. He became extremely tied to the cause, and literally became “Farid” Lyautey, and was engaged to a beautiful Iranian woman named Azra. He desperately wanted to leave his identity behind, in order to become the Iranian “Farid.” As Énard writes, “Only those who…choose to rid themselves of their lives (if such as thing is actually possible) can reach the other.” He eventually went mad and returned to Paris, but the case of Fred/Farid Lyautey illustrates the complexities that confront one’s identity depending on where they are living, especially when the culture they were raised in and the culture they moved to are considered part of two different worlds.
But the book is about more than just Orientalism. It is also about a relationship, namely between Franz and his fellow academic friend, Sarah, with whom there are definite romantic undertones. Theirs is a love both emotional and intellectual. They have gone on many trips together all over the world. They are constantly writing letters to each other, many of which are part of the text of Compass. While Franz goes gaga over how impressive Sarah is, both in her actual scholarship and because of how prolific she is, how many conferences she goes to all over the world, he also, at the heart of it, just values the time he physically gets to spend with her when he gets the chance. He recalls a time when he and her, for a variety of reasons, had to sleep next to each other, and he kicks himself for not making a move.
Sarah is also interesting because of how united her intellect and emotions are, both in how she interacts with the world and in her studies, including her studies of the Orient. She says at one point that “Orientalism should be a humanism.” She is constantly talking about how one should ethically deal with the Orient as the “Other,” how one should interact with “alterity,” etc. She has pretty much taken the language used in the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and fused herself with that way of interpreting the world. Sarah is a fascinating character and the relationship between her and Franz is what drives the plot of the book.
We don’t encounter a physical compass in the book until near the end. We learn that Beethoven had a compass that was very important to him, and that Franz has a replica of that compass, which for some reason always points East. Compass, as its title suggests, is about direction: how does the language we use to make sense of the world geographically and linguistically determine how the world is represented to us? How do these representations impact and produce reality as we know it? We can divide the world into Occident and Orient, but we must remember that this division is artificial. But at the same time, there is direction and there is, relatively, East and West, and these categories are in some cases the best tools we have to make sense of the world. However, as Énard writes, there exist “so many Orients,” there is not just one Orient or Orientalism. We should use these concepts and categories because we must, but we should also do so, like Franz and Sarah, with great care and caution.
Compass is a brilliant book that endows a topic that has traditionally only been discussed in the academy like Orientalism (despite it having real world effects) with a whole lot of heart and care. The form is innovative while also paying homage to Proust, the material is intellectually stimulating, and it tells the story of a moving romance. I highly recommend Compass.
- Cover of the novel, taken from its Amazon page.
- Credit to Joel Saget/AFP/Getty. Image taken from Eileen Battersby’s review in The Irish Times.