cover image Compass


Mathias Énard, trans. from the French by Charlotte Mandell. New Directions, $26.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2662-2

This astonishing, encyclopedic, and otherwise outré meditation by Énard (Zone) on the cultural intersection of East and West takes the form of an insomniac’s obsessive imaginings—dreams, memories, and desires—which come to embody the content of a life, or perhaps several. Franz Ritter is a musicologist who, though steeped in European culture, has yearned throughout his life for the the East; its poets, cities, and sensibility. In this opium addict’s dream of a novel, we retrace Ritter’s adventures in Palmyra, where he sleeps among the Bedouin; in Istanbul, on nights spent in the company of a debauched Prussian archeologist; and in Damascus, among the ruins where Ritter searches out “the reverie and sensual sweetness of the Arabian Nights.” The erudite Ritter also recalls episodes from the lives of historical personages such as Franz Liszt, Fernando Pessoa, and the Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat, the last of whom happens to have been the subject of a dissertation by Ritter’s unrequited love object, the equally cultured Sarah. It is to thoughts of Sarah, with whom Ritter parted in Damascus, that Ritter returns most frequently, hoping to reunite with her even as actual events in the Islamic world intrude on Ritter’s fantasies of Ottomans and sultans. Though occasionally exhausting, Compass is a document of the West’s ongoing fascination with all things Oriental, richly detailed, and a cerebral triumph of learning, as well as translation. For readers who ask literature to do what history and politics cannot, unraveling nard’s arabesque yields a bounty. (Mar.)