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Among other things, Carrère’s vision of the church’s early days in Asia Minor serves as a reminder of how much of what we now call Western civilization is in fact rooted in the East. Such debts are the subject of another book from France, Mathias Énard’s novel Compass (New Directions, $26.95), translated by Charlotte Mandell. Énard’s narrator, Franz Ritter, is an Austrian musicologist, a self-described “poor unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about.” He contends that the unprecedented flowering of music during the classical era — one of Europe’s greatest cultural achievements — actually “owed everything to the Orient”: “Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Bartók, Hindemith, Schönberg, Szymanowski,” all used Eastern influences to “undermine the dictatorship of church chant and harmony.”

Artwork from Compass, by Mathias Énard. Courtesy New Directions

Artwork from Compass, by Mathias Énard. Courtesy New Directions

Ritter’s commitment to his thesis induces in him a mania for spotting Arab and Persian notes in European culture, a mania that his friend and sometime lover Sarah lightly mocks by giving him a replica of the compass Beethoven kept on his writing desk, altered so that it always points east. As the novel starts, Ritter is living and teaching in his native Vienna, which ought to be the center of the world for a professor of nineteenth-century European music but feels to him like a backwater compared with Damascus and Tehran. He has just received a letter from Sarah, a scholar of comparative literature with a dissertation titled “Visions of the Other Between East and West,” announcing that she has forsaken her study of the Islamic world and taken up Buddhism in Borneo — “an east to the east of the east.” The news sends Ritter into a quite literal dark night of the soul, and Compass takes place over this long insomniac evening, during which he reminisces about their travels throughout the Middle East and plans his own magnum opus, “On the divers forms of Lunacie in the Orient,” a self-mocking study of Western scholars driven mad by their obsession with the exotic East.

Compass is filled with anecdotes from the long history of European Orientalism, featuring not only the familiar players — Gertrude Bell, Agatha Christie, Gustave Flaubert, T. E. Lawrence — but also fascinating minor figures, among them Alois Musil, a cousin of the writer Robert, who was a Hapsburg spy working to counteract British fomentation of an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I (“Lawrence of Moravia,” Ritter calls him), and Marga d’Andurain, a French noblewoman who married a Bedouin in the hopes of becoming the first European woman to visit Mecca and then likely poisoned him before disappearing in the Bay of Tangier in 1948.

Énard is himself a translator of Persian and Arabic who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, and he writes with an obvious love of the region, a deep knowledge of its history, and a great despair over what has become of it during the past decade. About a recent trip to Damascus, Ritter recalls:

We made fun so often of the ragged Syrian soldiers sitting in the shade of their ex-Soviet Jeeps broken down by the side of the road, hood open, waiting for an unlikely tow truck. As if that army had no power of destruction, no force of combat; the Assad regime and his tanks seemed to us like cardboard toys, marionettes, effigies empty of meaning on the walls of cities and villages; we did not see, beyond the apparent dilapidation of the army and the leaders, the reality of fear, death, and torture appearing behind the posters, the possibility of destruction and extreme violence behind the omnipresence of soldiers, badly dressed as they were.

There is something Sebaldian in Ritter’s encyclopedic erudition and the seamless way that he shifts between personal and historical memory. Like Sebald, he supplements his stories with documentary photographs, and he even shares a few of Sebald’s literary touchstones, including Kafka and Stendhal. But Ritter’s swirling, splenetic sentences put one more often in mind of Thomas Bernhard, his fellow Viennese nestbeschmutzer, who might well have agreed with Ritter that although the Ottoman Empire may once have been the “sick man of Europe,”

today Europe is its own sick man, aged, an abandoned body, hanged on its gallows, which watches itself rot thinking that Paris will always be Paris, in about thirty different languages.

Énard’s books are perhaps too difficult to make him a true literature-in-translation superstar in the Knausgaard or Ferrante mode. (An earlier novel, Zone, also takes place over one night, but it consists of a single 500-page sentence.) Still, Compass stands a fair chance of finding the wider American audience it deserves, if only for its timeliness. On the day I finished reading it, the Battle of Aleppo was nearing its horrifying climax and Angela Merkel announced that she supported a burka ban in Germany. A novelist like Énard feels particularly necessary right now, though to say this may actually be to undersell his work. He is not a polemicist but an artist, one whose novels will always have something to say to us. If that doctored replica of Beethoven’s compass stands as a fitting emblem of Ritter’s work, a better one for Énard’s would be the compass that can be found in hotel rooms throughout the Islamic world, so that travelers can orient themselves for prayer — a compass that “can indeed serve to locate the Arabic peninsula, but also, if you’re so inclined, Rome, Vienna, or Moscow: you’re never lost in these lands.”

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