Sunday, June 14, 2020

Book Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

For centuries, when the ´West´ was looking for a source of vital energy and often for interchamgeable goods like spices or precious diamonds or more recently oil, it turned its compass towards the ´East´, the ´exotic Orient´. On the other side of the imaginary curtain, the ´Orientals´ themselves looked towards the ´West´ in order to emulate them, integrate their values into their local system, when they were not bluntly to do it under political, economic or cultural pressure. Proud, some ´Orientals´ were able to display their local concotions: beautiful philosophical systems emulating Western values suited for the local needs - I wil leave for another time a well-deserved long discussion about how Iranian readings of French philosophers like Foucault or Gabriel Marcel were reinserted into the intellectual narrative of the Islamic Revolution; a relatively bizarre association yet as proved by intellectual facts, achievable.
Compass by Mathias Énard is an intellectual book as no other I´ve read in a very long time. And it is different of everything I´ve read before but always wanted to read. A novel with a very serious academic background about a topic I am personally and professionally dealing with on a regular, daily basis: the representations and projections assigned to cultures belonging to different ideatic realms. The word trigger is ´Orientalism´, the term branded by Edward Said which in its original acception is in my opinion very limitative and politically biased which obturates the extraordinary range of interpretations besides the power-oriented constructions.
But Énard which speaks Arabic and Persian, has the largesse d´esprit to open up to a different kind of discourse. Before being a very serious academic analysis about the gateways to and from Orient, Compass is set to be an academic love story, between the Vienna-based musicologist Franz Ritter and the curious Sarah, an infatigable French-Jewish academic whose PhD thesis was about ´Visions of the other between East and West´. Their love story is not the strong point of the novel but it allows at a certain extent the intense academic exchange to take place. Is the deep intellectual love impossible? The common fascination and intellectual interest and curiosity for almost everything that the human mind created is not enough and not necessarily the first and foremost condition of love?
Ritter is not necessarily the type of the critical intellectual, he prefers to display the academic knowledge in a story-format, without necessarily exposing and criticizing the elements of the representations. He, as Sarah, rather prefer to generate stories, adding various elements, instead of destroying myths. 
Their exchange of letters, emails and ideas when traveling together in places like Tehran or Damascus covers an immense share of world history, in point-counterpoint style which moves smoothly from music to poetry, fictions and ideology. The same moves are following various geographical areas from Vienna - defined by Hofmannstahl as the gateway to the Orient to more or less remote destinations. Sometimes, Budapest was ´exotic´ enough to oil the rotten joints of the European spiritual entreprise. Sometimes, Nepal or India or even China (indeed, what about a Made in China Orientalism?) were much sought. For Berlioz, Sicily was the Orient. The Middle East was always kept in a limbo: loved and hated for all the wrong reasons, it remains the alter-ego of the European failures and fake expectations. It´s a Jerusalem syndrome projected at the scale of a region.
And it goes both sides. We, as humans, we love to plunge into dreamlike territories, to escape ourselves. We travel and search for our roots and for spiritual awakening or alternative medicine. We are using a prigiledge that real people coming from our imaginary lands should fight for, sometimes with their lives, sometimes with their freedom. They leave behind homes and families and intellectual discussions and they are free in lands whose everyday life doesn´t correspond their intellectual expectations. The lost of identity is not always good tolerated by the soul. Compass mentions more than once the tragical fate of the talented Iranian intellectual Sadegh Hedayat who turned the gas into his Paris apartment. Was it because deeply alienated? Using elements of Persian folklore, his main work The Blind Owl is labelled the first modernist Iranian author, his writing being influenced among others by Rainer Maria Rilke or E.A. Poe. (hopefuly will be soon in the right mood to finally write the review of this book). But understanding the work properly means more than being able to recognize the letters and the various influences, it has to do with the conundrum of cultural influences and the context as such as, for instance, the symbol of the owl as such is a bad omen in Iran or India but for the Europeans it is associated with wisdom and knowledge. 
If we pay a careful look into recent history, there is at least one double take almost everywhere.´Europe sapped Antiquity under the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Egyptians. Our triumphant nations appropriated the universal with their monopoly on science and archeology, dispossesing the colonized populations by means of the pillage of a past that, as a result, they readily experienced as aline: and so brainwashed Islamist wreckers drive tractors all the more easily through ancient cities since they combine their profoundly uncultivated stupidity with the more or less widespread feeling that this heritage is an alien, retroactive emanation of foreign policies´. Within the context of the Orientalist policies at the extreme - in times of war, for example - the intellectual is assigned by his state of origin a different ´mission´: the archeologists might turn into spies, the linguists in propaganda experts and ethnologists into disciplinarians. To be continued...
Compass is a very complex reading and although I was literally hungry to read it throughout I needed to take a break every couple of pages and think and research and made a list of topics and authors I would love to read more about or composers whose works I need to listen to in the near future. The academic world, to whom both protagonists do belong, is roughly exposed, but in a more diplomatic, less ironic take as in the novels of David Lodge and it is rightly so as, in fact, the factories of Orientalism are everywhere although very often it starts among intellectuals, dreaming for escapes in far away geographical spaces - as the mind needs specific geographic boundaries to travel within, or maybe really does?. 
In one of the many breaks I´ve took from this book I asked myself more than once: how much Orientalism do I have/long for in my life? I may have a slight excuse of culturally belonging to a realm that includes a part of the Middle East however, what about yoga retreats, certain foods and spices I´ve obviously not grown up with, calligraphy and pleasure in listening - not necessarily understanding in the existential sense of the word - non-European tunes. It is probably a discussion that I will continue in the next readings and intellectual exchanges. 
I´ve read Compass in the English translation, which is a pity, but maybe will read the other novels by Énard in the original French language. As for now, this author is for me the literary revelation of the year.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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