Easily one of the most exhilarating and immersive reads for me this year.

Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.

This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.

Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of passing of the time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion…

Compass

That’s the plot in a nutshell. What makes this novel riveting and accomplished though is the high level of erudition displayed by Enard. It’s also a novel very relevant to our times; times when there is a growing level of intolerance towards different religions, cultures and peoples.

Increasing incidents of terrorism has widened the gulf between the East (largely Muslim) and the West. Certainly, the East is not as developed as the West. But there is this perception that the East is culturally deficient too. It’s the latter view that Enard challenges in this novel.

Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and a lot of Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt a lot from each other.

Enard also talks about the imaginary construct ‘the Orient’. While the Orient is perceived to be the East, it remains an ever shifting term because where really would you draw the line? Is Vienna the westernmost city and thereby a gateway to the East? Or would that be Turkey?  Culturally speaking, the boundaries are quite blurred.

The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.

A lot of western musicians, academics, writers, explorers and archeologists are discussed. Cultural references abound. Agatha Christie, Don Quixote, Balzac, Beethoven, Sadegh Hedayat, Chopin, Kafka, Proust, Thomas Mann, Wagner form just one slice of a large cultural cake. The point being that many of them were Orientalists and the feel of the East and ‘otherness’ was incorporated in some of their works. Lawrence of Arabia, 1001 Nights, Romeo & Juliet, Layla & Majnun are also vividly discussed.

Compass Fitzgarraldo

The cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra in Syria, before the current civil war, have been beautifully described. They are ancient and the traveller in me was mesmerized by this sense of history. Visiting these cities would have been a tremendous experience only that it is now impossible with so much destruction and the war showing little signs of abating.

For someone arriving from Damascus, Aleppo was exotic; more cosmopolitan perhaps, closer to Istanbul; Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, not far from Antioch, homeland of saints and crusaders, between the Orontes and Euphrates rivers. Aleppo was a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens, built around the train station, the southern branch of the Baghdad Bahn, which put Aleppo a week away from Vienna via Istanbul and Konya as early as January 1913…

Istanbul in Turkey and Tehran in Iran are wonderfully evoked too. Particularly, there are passages on the Iranian revolution in 1979, which make for fascinating reading. In the late 70s, inflation had become a big problem in Iran. Ordered to fight it, the Prime Minister Jamshid Amouzegar resorted to a draconian measure – he cut off public investments, stopped large building projects and heavily fined profiteers. In two years, inflation reduced only to be replaced by massive unemployment as economic activity halted. This resulted in the Iranian public turning against the then ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, who by then had no real support in 1978. Even those who had gotten rich thanks to him and benefitted from free education turned against him.

Enard also touches upon the topic of global jihad. It is widely believed that global jihad was instigated by radical Islamists and gained prominence since the 9/11 attacks in the US. The interesting fact is that the call for global jihad was made much earlier during the First World War and that too by Germany! Germany had set up a little known Prisoner of War camp called ‘Half Moon Camp’ just outside Berlin, which was dedicated to turning Allied Muslim soldiers into jihad warriors. The idea being that they rise against their employers notably Britain, France and Russia. This move backfired.

That’s not all. Interwoven through this rich fabric of musings on art and culture, is Ritter’s longing for the unattainable, fiery and independent Sarah. Ritter has his chances and he reflects on missed opportunities and on the course the relationship would have taken had he displayed more courage.

If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff everything would have been different…

At 445 pages (in the New Directions edition; the first picture), Compass is a rich and multi-layered novel and I have only managed to cover some of the themes here.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style as the action takes place inside Ritter’s head. The narration is not linear as Ritter goes back and forth through time and history when reminiscing. But it is not a difficult read. The chapter headings are in the form of time stamps as the hours in the night progress. The language is strong, hypnotic and lucid and the credit here goes to the translator Charlotte Mandell as much as it goes to the author.

In a fascinating interview on the Man Booker Prize website, Mandell touched upon what she liked about Compass.

She says, “I like the rhythm of the prose, the propulsive quality of the narrative, the sort of melancholy, Viennese tone of the narrator’s voice. For me, plot and character aren’t as alluring as language: if a sentence is well-constructed and the language is engaging, I am immediately seduced.”

Enard knows his subject matter too. He has spent long periods of time in the Middle East and is a professor of Arabic and Persian in the University of Barcelona. His knowledge and passion for the East, not surprisingly, is very apparent in this novel.

Is it important to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures if we humans want to learn and grow and widen our minds? Or should we bandy around the ‘nationalist’ theme and give in to the clamour to close borders? Enard gives a big thumbs up to the former.

Compass then is a sweeping and gorgeous read. An ode to Otherness. Erudition personified. A literary feast not to be missed.

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