FALLING FOR THE ORIENT ALL OVER AGAIN: Mathias Enard’s ‘Compass’

Mathias Enard, Compass, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)

By Defne Çizakça

Compass, which won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, is the story of Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist suffering from a mysterious disease. The book takes place during a sleepless night in which Franz reminiscences about his past, his meanderings in the Middle East, his life as an academic, and his romantic relationship with a brilliant yet evasive French scholar named Sarah. The two have not been in touch for over a year, until that very morning when Franz receives an article penned by her, sent from Sarawak, about the wine of the dead.

But this brief synopsis, as interesting as it sounds, does not do justice to the vast undertaking that is Compass. The novel begins with a beautiful first sentence that is 30 lines long, and that describes opium intoxication. This entry is like a massive door, heavy and ancient, that opens onto a new world. One where the East and West are not distinct and irreconcilable, but fundamentally interlinked. In fact, Enard does not so much depict a different world as he does another way of looking, and most of the book is dedicated to the building blocks of this gaze.

The reader realises early on that Compass is not solely a novel to read, but a treatise to study. The main characters of the book, Franz and Sarah, just like their creator Enard, are Orientalists. Born in Niort, France, Enard studied Arabic and Persian at the Institut des Langues Orientales. He has a doctorate in Iranian studies and lived between Iran, Syria and Lebanon in the 90’s. He has been based in Barcelona since 2008, teaching Arabic, writing, translating and running a Lebanese restaurant. Bearing the last in mind, it is a shame the history of culinary arts is absent from Compass but there is impeccable research with regards to the links between the East and West in all other fields of social science, which at times, can be overwhelming.

Nevertheless, this grand scale of information is necessary because at its core, Compass is a political book with an ambitious aim. It formulates a counter argument to two opposing views that have dominated our troubled times: islamophobia and Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism. Enard opposes the core thesis of islamophobia, that Muslims are uncivilized, through a variety of case studies and examples of cultural advancement from the East, with a particular focus on those elements that were borrowed, adopted or built on by Westerners. Secondly, Enard challenges Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism. Even as Said refused the designation of the world into a west and east, he argued against the oppression, belittling, and appropriation of the Orient by Westerners. His readers, in their turn, allowed for a fissure between a dominating West and a dominated East. Thus, they simultaneously denied and upheld the separation of these two cultures. Enard, through Franz and Sarah, offers a new way of writing history, by highlighting the continuity between the Occident and Orient, and their shared cultural constructions.

As Enard has such a strong thesis to prove, his writing has a tendency to become increasingly academic. Compass reads like an encyclopaedia at times, or a collection of essays, a biography of forgotten and large looming Orientalists. Whilst this may appeal to a certain segment of readers, it cannot be denied that the pace of this novel is very slow. Those who are intrigued by the wine of the dead, or the romance between Franz and Sarah must wait over 300 pages for a resolution. Another difficulty lies with Enard’s utilization of memory. Franz remembers his whole life in one sleepless night, but memory is seldom this systematic. It is fragmented and whimsical, especially when one is ill and sleep-deprived as Franz is. We are unlikely to remember whole days in detail, or long academic conversations. Remembering in coherent blocks might make sense if Franz had a listener, if he were reconstructing the past as a story, in a letter, for example, but he is alone in his flat in Vienna thus the structure of Compass feels artificial.

Enard’s strength lies in his intellect, his copious research and in his suggestion to read history differently, and for this reason it is important to summarise his main examples of East-West continuity here.

Let us start with music, and Mozart, as this is Franz’s field of expertise. It is through Turkish military music that Mozart creates his Rondo alla Turca, and through a fascination with the East that Felicien David develops his ode symphony Le Desert, inspired by his travels between Cairo and Beirut. Berlioz, in his turn, is influenced by Felicien David’s work, and Rimsky-Korsakov takes his cues from an ethnographic album based on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan melodies, Album of Arabic, Moorish and Kabyle Songs, compiled by Francisco Salvador-Daniel. Franz writes extensively on how the 19th and 20th centuries saw a revolution in music in the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Bartok, Hindesmith and Schonberg precisely because “these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self.” Hence the admiration of the Ottoman court for Mozart’s work, for they recognize “the self in the other,” and the irony of the jihadists who burn musical instruments because they are falsely deemed unislamic. In fact, and Enard argues this point successfully throughout the book, both islamophobia and violence stem from a lack of knowledge and wilful ignorance. Knowledge can be scary for it does not root us, or stabilize us, but instead it bewilders. It destroys boundaries, both physical ̶ the demarcation between the West and East, “where does the Orient really start,” Sarah and Franz argue, “in Vienna, Budapest or Istanbul?” ̶ and mental ̶ in the form of prejudice, fear and anger.

The field of literature, just as music, is made up of infusions. Enard, through Franz, argues that Balzac, that most French of writers, was inspired by Orientalists such as Hammer-Purgstall. So much so that he included Arabic texts within his La Peau de Chagrin (1837). Hugo penned Les Orientales, and Goethe the West-östlicher Divan inspired by the translations of the Persian mystical poet Hafez into German, and Chateaubriand invented travel literature with his Itinerary: From Paris to Jerusalem which would not have been possible without his interest in the East. Proust takes up the pen every night to recollect in In Search for Lost Time the way Scheherazade fights against death with her night-time stories to Shahryar. Proust alludes to The Thousand and One Nights more than once in his writings. The first European novel, Don Quixote by Cervantes, starts in Arabic lands and is itself attributed to an Arab, Sayyid Hamid Ibn al-Ayyil. Perhaps most surprising of all, we learn from Compass that until the 1950’s, there were Europeans who composed poetry in Persian, such as the Albanian Naim Frasheri, and Sicilian, Valencian and Balearic authors who penned their literary works in Arabic.

The field of painting is no different. Orientalist painters such as Delacroix, Matisse, Ernst and Dinet travelled the Middle East. They were influenced by local arts, traditions, architecture, peoples and landscapes. Eastern Orientalists contributed to the field with their own works, in the case of Osman Hamdi Bey, by discovering the Greek sarcophagi of Saida in Lebanon, among others. Courbet’s The Origin of the World   ̶ the infamous close-up of the female vagina and a highlight of European erotic arts   ̶ was commissioned by the Ottoman Halil Pasha. Thus, Sarah concludes, it is time to stop leaving the East out of Western modernity. For it was, in many aspects, the inspiration for it, and the Orientals themselves were its initiators and participants. Franz and Sarah’s scholarship points at how much the West has learned from the Middle East time and again, and in doing so they prove that not all Orientalists perform epistemic violence.

All the above ideas culminate in this simple, yet challenging assertion: there are no closed-off identities. We do not belong to one single place, but are always and already, in between. Perhaps the story of the song Franz sends to his beloved Sarah, of the Sevdalinka tradition of Bosnia, is a summary of the theory that East and West are forever intertwined. Sevdalinka comes from the Turkish word sevda, meaning love, which itself comes from the Arabic word sawda, meaning black mood. Like the Portuguese Fado and the Greek Rembetiko, Sevdalinka are songs of melancholy. They are Balkan reinterpretations of Ottoman music.

The song in question is Kraj Tanana Sadrvana. It tells the tale of an Arab Slave who falls in love with a princess. His face becomes paler and paler as he gazes upon her. The princess asks him his name and where he is from. The slave answers that he is Mohammed, from Yemen, and of the tribe of Asra. “It is those Asra,” he says, “who die when they fall in love.” One could easily jump to the conclusion that this poem dates back to the classical Ottoman era, but it was written by a Bosnian in the 19th century. Safvet-beg Basagic was born in 1840. He knew Turkish and learned Arabic and Persian during his studies in Vienna. Safvet-beg translated Khayyam into Bosnian and his Kraj Tanana Sadrvana is a translation of the famous poem by the German Jew Heinrich Heine, “Der Asra.” A song that was both of the West and the East.

Charlotte Mandell, Compass’ translator from the original French into English, has worked meticulously to stay true to both Enard’s language, and to the Persian, Ottoman, Turkish, Arabic and German vocabulary that runs through the book and which must have presented a challenge. Mandell summarizes this creative process as an absenting of the self, and likens it to Buddhist practice, where the absence of the ego can let the text speak for itself. As Mandell says in an interview for World Literature Today, to stay true to the experience of the readers, she never reads a novel before translating it, and as she is translating she pretends that she is the author, writing the book one sentence at a time. Compass is her third collaboration with Enard, having previously translated Zone (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2014) and Street of Thieves (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015).

Enard’s choice for the title, Compass or Boussole, is not accidental. There are no clear loci once we delve into the history of music, literature, philosophy and scholarship. The compass that Sarah gifts Franz is broken. It points to the East, rather than the North. This focus is true for Sarah and Franz, as their research keeps taking them to the Orient, but perhaps the larger argument is that all compasses are dysfunctional. They separate geographies so as to orient us, but cultural production is always mongrel, if not cosmopolitan.

By the end of Compass, Sarah has turned to the Far East in an attempt to deal with her brother’s unexpected death. She begins studying Tibetan Buddhism and meditation. It is fitting that Compass finishes with her spiritual investigations. Buddhism postulates there is suffering because human beings, mistakenly, believe that they are separate, individual, better than the rest. The truth is that in the world of samsara, everything is interdependent.

In Sarah’s words, it is high time to find a new vision that will include the other in the self. On both sides. Enard’s Compass is both an argument for this shared history and an admirable exemplar.


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