As bombs fall everywhere in Syria and IS fighters destroy Palmyra, a musicologist in Vienna lies awake all night thinking of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, where he stayed in 1996, following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, Agatha Christie and King Faisal. He remembers the hotel’s
Ottoman ogival windows and its monumental staircase, with its old, worn-out rugs and shabby rooms where there were still useless bakelite telephones and metal clawfoot bathtubs whose pipes sounded like a heavy machine gun whenever you turned on the tap, in the midst of faded wallpaper and rust-stained bedspreads.
In 1996 Franz Ritter was travelling with a fellow student, Sarah, a beautiful French woman, studying for her PhD in Orientalism. Almost two decades later, she has triggered his restless night by sending him an offprint of her recent academic article, beginning with a quote from the Iranian novelist Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl: ‘There are certain wounds in life that, like leprosy, eat away at the soul in solitude and diminish it.’
Before ending their relationship and marrying someone else, Sarah gave Franz a replica of the special east-pointing compass Beethoven kept on his desk. Flitting in and out of fitful dreams, Franz reflects on the long history of confluence between East and West. In 1798, ‘the first European colonial expedition to the Near East was a fine military fiasco.’ Instead of being the saviour of Islam as he expected, Napoleon Bonaparte, ‘the inventor of Orientalism conceded a very bitter defeat to the perfidious British’. Franz wonders whether the Germans and Austrians thought of Napoleon when they launched the appeal for global jihad in 1914. He traces the idea to the archaeologist Max von Oppenheim, and points out that it was a
rather complex fatwa, since it didn’t call for holy war against all infidels, and excluded from the impious the Germans, the Austrians and the representatives of neutral countries.
Throughout the night, Franz constructs a palimpsest of historical facts and personal reminiscences, seeking a definition of Orientalism, challenging the contribution of Edward Said to this long-running debate. He notes that Sarah, in her book on women and the Orient, quotes the 1920s poet and novelist Lucie Delarue: ‘Easterners have no sense of the Orient. It is we Westerners, we Roumis, as the Muslims call us, Christians, who have a sense of the Orient.’ Whilst for her Orientalism is reverie, lament and ‘a forever disappointing exploration’, Franz situates himself in the ‘fertile current that is built on this dream, without needing to travel’. He looks back to Proust, who took The Thousand and One Nights as a model for In Search of Lost Time.
Just as Scheherazade fights every evening against the sentence that weighs over her by telling a story to the Sultan Shahryar, Marcel Proust takes up the pen every night for many nights, he says ‘maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand’, to fight against time.
Without the Orient, no Proust, Franz concludes.
Compass won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2017. In Charlotte Mandell’s elegant translation, Mathias Énard’s humane and erudite novel reminds the anglophone world of what it owes to Islam. When she gave Franz the replica compass, Sarah told him it was ‘the compass of the Enlightenment’. As he lies awake he is visited by a long succession of artists, writers, composers, architects and archaeologists whose work relied on the exchange between East and West. Balzac, for example, dedicated The Cabinet of Antiquities to the Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, who visited Beethoven in Vienna. In Hammer-Purgstall’s diary there is an account of Beethoven’s last concert, when it became humiliatingly clear that the composer had lost his hearing. Alongside this, Franz places his own reminiscence of a lecture at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn on ‘The Ruins of Athens and the Orient’, given by an old friend and colleague who starts madly ranting about al-Qaeda:
Our world is in danger, no one is interested in Greek or Roman archaeology any more, only al-Qaeda, and Beethoven had realised you have to bring both sides together in music, the East and the West, to drive away the end of the world that’s approaching.
Franz flees from the lecture, like he tries to flee from his disturbing dreams.
Compass ends with the break of day and ‘the warm sunlight of hope’. For a book structured around a dark night in the soul of a musicologist, it is surprisingly delicate and humorous. Franz’s bleak thoughts are leavened by his wry insights: ‘I’m a poor, unsuccessful academic, with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about.’ He brought back a lute from Aleppo, which he keeps in his bedroom, together with the compass and a collection of Sarah’s publications. Énard’s Franz is a storyteller in the grand tradition of Scheherazade.