In his novel Compass, the well-travelled polyglot and writer Mathias Enard develops a counter-programme to the populist mainstream of being ‘anti-’open borders.
The two main characters, Sarah and Franz, meet at Schloss Hainfeld*, which 180 years ago was home to the Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. Both protagonists share a common interest in the orient: Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, is intrigued by the influences of Middle Eastern exotics on 19th century music. The Parisian, Sarah, is a scholar with a passionate interest in the multifaceted cultural and ritual reciprocal relations between the orient and the west. In their shared conversations they develop an intimate relationship that, nonetheless, is fraught with misunderstandings. While the shy Franz only expresses his love with hidden signs, Sarah keeps her independence and finally marries a Syrian musician. But their relationship and their intensive dialogue remains intact over the years. On one sleepless night, these memories flit through Franz’ mind. Drifting between the thoughts and dreams, hour by hour in a semi-awake and semi-dreamlike monologue he uncovers his profound longing for Sarah to whom he has stayed loyal despite everything.
Mathias Enard has written a novel that glimpses behind the current crises. At the start, in the 19th century there is widespread fascination for oriental influences that corresponded to colonial expansion in the Middle East. Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall was one of the great initiators of a new cultural understanding of Turkish, Arabic and Iranian culture. His compass pointed eastwards. Mathias Enard allows himself to be guided by this compass. Even his main protagonists are fascinated by the orient. However, they are also always aware that this fascination is a western projection. Yet it is also a projection that reverberates in the orient. In Saudi Arabia, for example, “orientializing” Disney films are extremely popular because, meanwhile, their images are seen as authentic. These are the kinds of references that time-travel to the past opens up for the present, and the context for the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo in a hail of bombs.
Enard presents infinitely intriguing, enigmatic and surprising ideas and events which have permanently influenced our perception of the orient. On the one hand, these are the poetic and mystic tendencies that early on already held a powerful allure for people from the west: “the humility of the nomad’s life”, for instance. On the other hand, over the decades archaeology and linguistics have played a helping hand in colonizing the oriental world.
It is amazing to read how richly Enard embellishes these mutual relationships and brings into play names from Omar Khayyam to Fernando Pessoa, from Hafez to Heine. Not to mention the traveller and explorer of the orient, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, or the infamous Marga d’Andurain, who once managed a hotel in Palmyra. However, the great merit of this book is its skilful connection of a discerning essayist style with the narrative of a touching and ultimately unrequited love story. This dual narrative thread gives Mathias Enard’s novel that eloquence which also makes Orientalism sensually tangible. “Compass” opens our eyes towards the east with an equally critical as well as fascinated approach. Despite its retrospective qualities it is a book that is entirely attuned to our times.
Mathias Enard: Compass. Novel. (Kompass. Translated from French (Boussole) by Holger Fock and Sabine Müller. Hanser Berlin, Berlin 2016. 428 pages./English translation by Charlotte Mandell, Fitzcarraldo Editions).
* At Schloss Hainfeld, in 2009, the first European Literature Days were held where Mathias Enard gave a reading in the library of the Orientalist, Hammer-Purgstall.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright