Edward Said makes a cameo in Mathias Énard’s Compass, the French writer’s latest novel (his third translated into English) and the winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt. The brief allusion — a summoning, really — feels prudent, even necessary. Said, “the Great Name,” is a kind of stake driven into the novel’s conceptual soil, holding in place its billowing fever dream of a plot. Compass, a brilliant, elusive, outré love letter to Middle Eastern art and culture, is also a spirited challenge to Said’s masterpiece, which can be felt thrumming beneath the text as an animating anxiety. Out of the ontological fissure of Orientalism, Énard’s novel emerges as a strange and subtle creation. It presents a historically permeable Eurasia, whose blurring cultures constitute something like a shared hallucination.
The story, such as it is, centers on the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter, who spends an insomniac night suffering from an undisclosed illness while reconsidering the painful arc of his life and largely unrequited love. The book’s infrequent time stamps serve as ersatz chapters, each of which unspools as a series of restless memories from Ritter’s extensive travels in the Middle East. Ritter, who has made an academic career of cataloging Europe’s cultural debt to the Orient, serves as a vehicle for Énard’s dazzlingly erudite riffs on music, painting, literature, folklore, and history. (Énard is a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona, and speaks fluent Persian.) The resulting intellectual torrent, vividly translated by Charlotte Mandell, purportedly comprises Ritter’s unwritten “revolutionary thesis” — “On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient” — and reads as equal parts confession, travelogue, and dreamscape.
It is also a powerful vision of the West as unsuspecting cultural mongrel. One of the great joys of the book is to follow Ritter down the rabbit hole of artistic cross-pollination between Orient and Occident, beginning with Napoleon — “the inventor of Orientalism” — whose failed Egyptian campaign opened the floodgates of a great, unforeseen exchange of art and literature. This alien cultural strain was readily absorbed by European artists, creating a kind of aesthetic signature within the work of talents as diverse as Goethe, Mozart, Rimbaud, Proust, Nietzsche, and Flaubert. “These great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self,” Ritter says, “to bastardize it, for genius wants bastardy.”
Ritter’s beloved, the unattainable Sarah, is a fellow scholar of Orientalism pursuing her own vision of an intermingled modernity. Throughout their expeditions in Aleppo, Palmyra, and revolutionary Tehran — and later in emails from a monastery in Borneo, where she has mysteriously disappeared — Sarah examines the “linked construction” of East and West, “a complex work of time where imagination is superimposed atop imagination, creation over creation, between Europe and Dar el-Islam.” She sees this cultural production as shared, echoic, and prone to modification; reiteration becomes, in itself, something like a binding moral act.
Sarah’s passion and rangy intellectual energy have long since snared poor Franz; indeed, beneath the skin of this towering novel of ideas there beats the heart of a rather traditional love story, albeit one embossed with the gold leaf of Palmyran deserts and Damascan souks. There are false starts and oversteps, missed connections, the gentle disasters of erotic humiliation, scenes out of farce. Ritter’s romantic privations form a tender crease of empathy, which grounds his heady pontificating in prosaic life. Amid the novel’s dreamy melancholia, Sarah’s comparatively muscular presence also pays formal dividends. If she is not the book’s hero, she is its operating impulse, the only real narrative velocity to be found within Ritter’s narcotic drift.
It is Sarah, too, who raises the specter of Said in a revolutionary thesis of her own. She suggests the great scholar’s theories, due in large part to their reverential reception, have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, completing “a posteriori the scenario of domination which [his] thinking meant to oppose.” The result is a cementing of the Orient’s ostensible Otherness, rather than its dismantling. Her response to this development is worth quoting at length:
[H]istory could be read in an entirely different way, she said, written in an entirely different way, in sharing and continuity. She spoke at length on […] the question of imperialism, of difference, of the twenty-first century when, facing violence, we needed more than ever to rid ourselves of this absurd idea of the absolute otherness of Islam and to admit not only the terrifying violence of colonialism, but also all that Europe owed to the Orient — the impossibility of separating them from each other, the necessity of changing our perspective. We had to find, she said, 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.
Some readers will surely find this position irresponsible or underdeveloped; it is admittedly thorny territory. But taken astride Énard’s extraordinary devotion to Middle Eastern thought and culture, and his clear sensitivity to the violence of imposed identity, it feels, to this reader at least, like a generous if necessarily incomplete reckoning.
Central to that reckoning is the menace of jihad, which occasionally hovers over the narrative like the bruise of bad weather. Initially, it is an unreal presence for Ritter and his fellow scholars, a kind of paper tiger: “We made fun so often of the ragged Syrian soldiers sitting in the shade of their ex-Soviet jeeps broken down by the side of the road.” Later, when Aleppo’s destruction is broadcast to a numbed world, Ritter comes to know better: “We did not see, beyond the apparent dilapidation of the army and the leaders, the reality of fear, death, and torture appearing behind the posters, the possibility of destruction and extreme violence behind the omnipresence of soldiers.” And while his colleagues may attach themselves to revolutionary causes, Ritter himself seemingly lacks the capacity for demonstrable political conviction; consequently, these rare admissions — spare, almost Sebaldian — are the nearest thing to engagement, or indeed guilt, one is able to discern in his character.
Yet even the violence of jihad, Énard suggests, is a shared construction, “the synthesis of an atrocious, cosmopolitan history.” In a particularly harrowing passage, Sarah relates how Nazi Germany sought to attract the favor of Muslims in order to compel a rear attack against the English, essentially inciting jihad well before the word had entered the Western lexicon. Sophisticated propaganda was levied against the populations of Central Soviet Asia, India, and the Middle East: “Islamologist Orientalists were […] consulted to find out if the Koran somehow predicted the Führer’s rise to power,” Sarah tells Ritter. There were even plans to disseminate a new Arabic text, Portrait of the Führer as Commander of the Faithful, “with turban and decorations inspired by the great Ottoman epoch,” until a mortified Goebbels put a stop to it. Énard’s account of the strange, shameful enterprise of “SS Orientalism” positions the consequences of cultural hybridity somewhere between the sublime achievements of literature, painting, and music, and the enormously destructive impulses of the Islamic State. That he does not offer more exact bearings is to his, and the book’s, credit.
While there seems to be a reflex to lionize Compass as “more important than ever,” presumably due to the divisiveness of our current moment, I find myself resistant to this take. It diminishes an extraordinary achievement with the burden of a vague and unconvincing humanism. The brilliance of Énard’s novel — the best we’re likely to receive this year — rests on something more fragile and more ambiguous. Culture is permeable, it proclaims — and just as likely to absorb the bad as the good. We ought to celebrate this coalescence, but we are also morally obliged to take its inventory. “You’re surprised by the marble of the World veined with suffering and love, at daybreak,” Ritter says at the end of his dark night of the soul. A cautious epiphany: May our hopes, like our lives, be tempered.
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Times.