Compass by Mathias Énard (trans. Charlotte Mandell) — Thomas McMullan

“Music is time domesticated, reproducible time, time shaped.” So thinks Franz Ritter, the insomniac Austrian musicologist whose consciousness is our squirming bedfellow in Mathias Énard’s Compass. If music is time shaped, then surely it is a form of topological equivalence in Énard’s book, a malleable game of deformed counterparts, where one moment can be bent and flexed like putty into another, years ago, thousands of miles away.

Ritter’s sleepless night is full of reveries, across hours that earmark each chapter like anxious glances at an alarm clock, folding into memories of Istanbul, Damascus, Aleppo and Tehran. At the centre of these recollections is Sarah, a French academic who shares Ritter’s thesis on the “irrigation” of European music, literature and art with Middle Eastern culture throughout the 18th and 19th century. From Nietzsche and Goethe, to Liszt and Wagner, to Flaubert and Balzac, Ritter lays out the argument that pretty much every influential figure of the time imported styles and modes from eastern sources, absorbing them into what we call European culture.

Sarah and Ritter’s brand of Orientalism is one that self-consciously moves past post-colonial penitence, absorbed in redrawing geographical lines around a model of sharing and continuity, less a bridge between East and West and more a reduction of distance that, like music’s fluidity, folds Europe and the Middle East into one pliable topology.

At one point, Sarah talks about the need 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.”

It is a hopeful, humanist vision; one that Énard deftly connects to contemporary conflicts, to Isis and public decapitations that, he argues, take place in an imaginal world, commonly constructed on both western and eastern conceptions of the Orient; Wahhabism by way of Disney’s Aladdin. “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,” says Sarah.

The looming figure amongst all of this, of course, is Edward Said. In one of the novel’s most memorable moments, Said is summoned like an avenging ghost in the midst of a boozy debate between scholars. “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” One colleague immediately begins denouncing his own thoughts, “horrified at the idea that he could be associated with any kind of Orientalism.” Ritter, however, only notes dryly that Said was an excellent pianist, and that he founded the West-östlicher Divan orchestra, “where the beauty of sharing and diversity is stressed.”

Like his 2008 novel Zone, written as a single 150,000-word sentence, Énard’s Compass is a book about boundaries and non-boundaries, smudged lines between countries, languages, cultures and times.

The novel’s title alludes to a section in the story where Ritter is gifted a replicate of Beethoven’s compass by Sarah, but finds it points East instead of North. The trick tool is an icon of Ritter’s monolithic obsession with the Middle East, but it is also a neat piece of disorientation, reorientation, of altered geographies and revised histories. Ritter the rhizomatic navigator.

Following this multi-directional flow is a pleasure, thanks in part to prose that – translated by Charlotte Mandell – buoys academic detours with aphorisms and scenes plush with emotional detail. The first third or so hits you over the head with scholarly references, but this gives way to sections of storytelling that give real depth and humanity to Ritter and Sarah’s relationship. It is a book with ideas, but one that underpins its eruditeness with a sad, lovesick soul. For a novel overspilling with dead writers, Enard has created a story full of life, full of possibility for the oriental and occidental to find the self in the other.

Music, above everything else, is the malleable core of Compass, shapeless in its shape-making. At one point Ritter thinks about Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, with its lack of a third movement, present implicitly, he argues. It is present in its absence, a terrifying absence at the close of human experience, but it is this void that gives life to the sonata, a fragile life delineated by nothing. “Beethoven sends me back to nothingness,” thinks Ritter, “to the compass of the Orient, to the past, to illness and to the future.”


Mathias Énard born in 1972, studied Persian and Arabic and spent long periods in the Middle East. He has lived in Barcelona for about fifteen years, interrupted in 2013 by a writing residency in Berlin. He won several awards for Zone, including the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Décembre, and won the Liste Goncourt/Le Choix de l’Orient, the Prix littéraire de la Porte Dorée, and the Prix du Roman-News for Street of Thieves. He won the 2015 Prix Goncourt for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot and many other distinguished authors. She has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone.

Thomas McMullan is a London-based writer. He has been published by Lighthouse, 3:AM Magazine, The Stockholm Review, The Literateur and Cadaverine Magazine, and is a contributing editor for minor literature[s]. He contributes to The Guardian and is published in Best British Short Stories 2016. http://thomasmcmullan.com . @thomas_mac

Image: Compass, Walt Stoneburner, Creative Commons

Compass is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Author and translator bio courtesy of the same.