Ruth Scurr

Dark night of the soul

A delicate and numorous novel, elegantly translated from the French, Compass reviewed

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.

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