“A Modernist writing in a post-modern world” – Compass by Mathias Enard

‘A puff of Iranian opium, a puff of memory, it’s a kind of forgetfulness, a forgetfulness of the advancing night, of encroaching illness, of the blindness that’s overtaking us’

In his introduction to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, Geoff Dyer describes the book as having ‘two subjects: the first is Yugoslavia, and the second is everything else’. Mathias Enard’s novels have a similarly vast scope. Zone (published in the UK in 2010), manages to encompass the history of conflicts in the Mediterranean from the Trojan wars to the present day, from the perspective of a singular narrator; Street of Thieves (2015) described the Arab Spring and the experience of Arab migrants in Europe, blending politics, economics, religion and history. In Compass, Enard uses the figure of an insomniac academic as a starting point for a novel which traces the history of cultural exchanges between the Oriental and Occidental worlds.

Enard’s narrator, Franz, is an Austrian musicologist who has worked on the adaptation (and appropriation) of Eastern styles by Western composers. His sleep-deprived stream of reminiscence, which makes up most of the novel, takes in his relationship with Sarah, an academic specialising in the history of the Orient, and their joint travels through Syria and Iran, reflections on his own studies, and a more general consideration of the present state of conflict between East and West.

Through Franz, Enard stresses the cultural links between East and West, challenging the current, War on Terror-inspired narrative of diametrically opposed civilisations. In high culture, Franz argues that Eastern influences underpin what we think of as quintessentially ‘European’ art, the work of Beethoven for example (‘the revolution in music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries owed everything to the Orient… it was not a matter of ‘exotic procedures’ as was thought before, this exoticism had a meaning’); in social terms, he thinks back to the almost Parisian culture which was found in the major cities of Syria and Lebanon, before those countries were torn by civil wars – a lament which is often found in the writing of war correspondents like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn.

Franz makes frequent reference to figures such as Sadegh Hedayat, the subject of Sarah’s thesis, a drug-using, decadent Iranian novelist who was championed by Breton, and Francisco Salvador-Daniel, a composer and Communard who translated North African songs to be performed on European instruments. These individuals act as links to a time when both societies engaged in cultural dialogue; strikingly, they are forgotten in both East and West now.

Increasingly. Franz sees the Orient as a place of the imagination rather than a geographic location: ‘there might be a second Orient, that of Goethe or Hugo, of people who know neither Oriental languages nor the countries where they are spoken, but who rely on the works of Orientalists and travellers… and even a third Orient which feeds on these works that are themselves indirect’. He borrows the Islamic concept of ‘barzakh’, the barrier between the physical and spiritual world, reinterpreted as a space ‘into which artists and travellers fall’.

Unsurprisingly, Franz’s academic contemporaries, spending their lives in search of a fading, possibly illusory subject, exhibit signs of a modern decadence. One colleague in particular, Faugier, is described as the ‘entomologist of despondency… eaten away by a galloping sadness, a tuberculosis of the soul that he tended with formidable quantities of narcotics’: his decadence is mirrored by youth of Tehran whose idleness ‘was so great that nothing could prevent them from looking for consolation in drugs, parties and fornication’. This mixture of nostalgia and narcotics is seemingly integral to their understanding of the East: ‘desire for the Orient is also a carnal desire, a physical domination, an erasing of the other in pleasure’.

Franz’s observations of the modern Middle East are less romantic, characterised by images of Isis ‘burning musical instruments because they’re un-Islamic’. Franz argues against this narrow view of Islam, highlighting stories of Muslim poets, musicians and philosophers. Illustrating the two-sided catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East today, Franz argues that ‘no image better represents the terrifying battle that the jihadists are actually waging against the history of Islam than those poor guys in camo… attacking sad martial instruments of whose origin they are ignorant’.

Western historians are also guilty of acquiescing with oppressive regimes, and allowing corruption to go uninvestigated: in Syria, for example, ‘there was a certain comfort that foreigners found in police regimes, a muffled, silent peace from Deraa to Qamishli…a peace humming with suppressed hatred’. Their yearning for the past allows them to ignore injustice in the present, as long as their research is allowed to go unmolested. Regimes created ‘a yoke to which all the foreign scholars willingly accommodated… they all enjoyed the leaden calm of Damascus or Aleppo’.

Franz’s narrative encourages the reader to consider the role of empathy and imagination in developing our views of other cultures, and the way that knowledge and experience are shaped and mediated in the process of cultural exchange. Franz argues that the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism has inadvertently reinforced the view of the Orient as unknowably ‘other’ in Western eyes, referring to Said at one point as ‘the Great Name, the wolf… in the midst of the flock’.

The insomniac, fragmented narrative of Compass is closer in style to Zone than the more conventional Street of Thieves, without having the obvious, spectacular brilliance of Enard’s debut. Compass is more elegiac in mood, but has an understated elegance which works its way under the reader’s skin, pulling you in to its circular narrative. There are hints of Gide’s The Immoralist in the campfire stories which Enard weaves into his narrative, and even a faint echo of Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden in the unrequited longing Franz feels for Sarah. A Modernist writing in a post-modern world, Enard demonstrates that the form remains relevant, in the right hands.

Any Cop?: Enard’s work is, as always, erudite, sophisticated and enlightening, operating on a level which few contemporary writers can attain. Compass is not the most immediate of his novels, or the best entry point, but it is an exceptionally humane work, which acts as an important counter-balance to the increasingly divisive East/West discourse, and memorialises a culture in grave threat.


Thom Cuell



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