Recently diagnosed with a serious disease, or perhaps it's his hypochondria, Ritter spends the hours thinking about the connections between Western culture and the Mideast.
He's obsessed with European concepts of "the other" and "alterity." This leads him into imagined conversations with Thomas Mann, Wagner, and Edward Said.
Ritter's sardonic doctor, who sounds like a holdover from the Third Reich, has refused to give Ritter a prescription for his beloved opium. Guess there's no Ambien in Vienna.
During the slow progression toward sunrise, Ritter uncovers the contributions made by Persian and Arabic composers, writers and artists to Western art, literature and music. Ritter with his encyclopedic knowledge expresses belief in a unified human civilization.
While Ritter's dazzling intellectual flights give a challenging education in European and Islamic culture, the novel's essential beauty comes from his recollections of journeys to Mideastern places.
Énard's language, translated by American Charlotte Mandell, poignantly evokes a tolerant, sophisticated culture destroyed in recent decades by warfare and Islamic fundamentalism.
Ritter's recollections of travels with a European coterie of "Orientalists" reveal a cosmopolitan world of conversation, music, food and love. He recalls the grace and richness of Aleppo, recently devastated by the Syrian civil war, and a visit to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, destroyed by Isis before the Sunni group's defeat. Istanbul and Tehran also glow in beauty and sensual pleasures before the rise of repressive Islamic leaders.
The book's most heartbreaking sequence describes how the Iranian revolution's promise of democracy and freedom after the shah's downfall was thwarted by the Ayatollah Khomeni's reactionary regime.
While Ritter's cultural digressions resemble an intellectual treatise, "Compass" dazzles as a novel brimming with fully imagined set pieces and memorable secondary characters.
The primary unifying story comes from Ritter's lamentations about his lost love for a beguiling woman named Sarah, also an academic excited by connections among different cultures. As the night stretches on, Ritter muses over his failed relationship with her. A spiritual searcher, Sarah has left her home in Paris to explore primitive cultures in Malaysia after a period seeking Buddhist enlightenment.
Ritter recalls a series of interactions with Sarah through the years, ranging from Mideastern excursions and academic conferences to her romantically thwarted visits to Vienna. The relationship between them ranges from romantic tenderness to the excitement of shared ideas to slapstick comedy. With all of his erudition and cultural perceptiveness, Franz is amazingly obtuse about Sarah. The novel closes on a beautiful, ambiguous interchange between the two, showing that love letters will maintain their power in the age of email.
Edward Said's influential treatise "Orientalism" is a touchstone of "Compass." The storytelling structure of "A Thousand and One Nights" is another talisman, along with Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." Ritter's voice also recalls that of Camus' solitary first-person narrator in "The Fall."
While questions of accuracy recently rose in Deborah Smith's translation of South Korean novelist Han Kong's "The Vegetarian," Mandell rendered Énard's original French with exactitude and artistic brilliance. Énard's long, meandering sentences register in English with the exquisite beauty of their original language. A description of Istanbul's waterfront as seen through a window during an early evening gathering combined poetic musicality with visual precision.
Énard's demands on the reader are rewarded with aesthetic power and intellectual enrichment. Moments of hope and beauty break through clouds of despair and sorrow. Flashes of black-tinged humor lighten the mood. While I at times felt disoriented as if lost in a labyrinth, Énard's compass had a true direction.
moments of hope and beauty breaking through clouds of despair and sorrow. While I at times felt disoriented as if lost in a labyrinth,