With divisive rhetoric spouting these days from every direction, Mathias Énard’s magnificent “Compass” has appeared on our shores at precisely the right time.
It’s a novel that looks closely at the intersections — historical, personal and, most of all, musical — between East and West. It also provides another welcome look at the kinships that bind the Middle East to Europe. In doing so, “Compass” reminds us that these are not static places, but in fact dynamic combinations of cultures and traditions.
The third of the French author’s novels to be translated into English (after “Street of Thieves” and the epic “Zone”), “Compass” revels in the author’s firsthand knowledge of the Middle East and his study of Arabic and Persian. Not surprisingly, it won the 2015 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. More recently, it was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist and scholar of orientalism, or as he puts it, “a poor unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about” with a hankering for opium. He has received a spot of bad news: the confirmation of a serious, unnamed disease. Set in Vienna over the course of one sleepless December night, “Compass” consists of his rambling, panicky and erudite inner monologue contemplating the doctor’s diagnosed “deadly kiss” and everything else that has gone wrong in his life. An obsession with a colleague named Sarah gives some structure to his flights of fancy. There’s reason to suspect that his affection might not be reciprocated. Some source of deep shame continues to torment him and keep him up at night.
Énard’s sentences, rooted in Ritter’s Teutonic grammar and syntax, not to mention his rambling monkey mind, often roll on, clause after clause, with rarely a break for air. Here’s an excerpt from a typical sentence that runs on for a full page:
“God knows what association led me to have this melody in my head now; even with my eyes closed as I try to breathe deeply the brain still has to keep whirring, my own private music box starts playing at the most inopportune time, is this a sign of madness, I don’t know, I’m not hearing voices, I’m hearing orchestras, lutes, songs; they’re cluttering up my ears and my memory, they start up all by themselves as if, when one agitation goes away, another, pressed down beneath the first, overflows the consciousness.” That goes on and on. His encyclopedic knowledge of history and music keeps the reader hooked at every turn. I found myself staying up nearly as late as Ritter, unable to stop reading.
One of Ritter’s primary fixations is the persistent tradition of European composers co-opting and watering down Middle Eastern music. “I’ve shown that the revolution in music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries owed everything to the Orient,” he says, “that it was not a matter of ‘exotic procedures,’ as was thought before, this exoticism had a meaning, that it made external elements, alterity, enter, it was a large movement, and gathered together, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Bartók, Hindemith, Schönberg, Szymanowski, hundreds of composers throughout all of Europe, over all of Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self, to bastardize it.”
There’s an apt symphonic quality to Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Themes appear and return, often in variations. Motifs — illness, dread, shame — lots and lots of shame — return us to Ritter’s bed and his long, dark night of the soul. The genius of Énard’s composition lies in the seemingly random organization of Ritter’s thoughts. Of course, they’re not random, no more than is any literary exercise in stream of consciousness, but the tendrils that subtly lead from one thought to the next are astounding. Although Ritter appears to make huge leaps in logic, and his brain jumps from topic to topic, Énard always provides us with enough bread crumbs to follow his winding path.
Every reminiscence about an old Egyptologist or a long-ago meal reveals something about the mental state of our tossing and turning narrator. The humiliation that Beethoven felt about growing deaf and unwittingly performing on an out-of-tune piano speaks volumes about Ritter’s own lasting shame: “Beethoven’s fingers play perfectly, and he can hear, internally, his music as it should sound; for the audience, it’s a sonorous catastrophe, and although Beethoven can see his beloved from time to time, he must perceive, little by little, that the faces are overcome by embarrassment — shame, even, at witnessing the great man’s humiliation in this way.”
Every anecdote and memory is as much about Ritter as the remembered events themselves. Énard has written a masterful novel that speaks to our current, confused moment in history by highlighting the manifold, vital contributions of Islamic and other Middle Eastern cultures to the European canon. More than that, it points toward, as one character puts it, “a new vision that includes the other in the self.”
Michael Dirda is on vacation.
By Mathias Énard
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
New Directions. 464 pp. $26.95