Compass – Mathias Enard

‘The Danube is the river that links Catholicism, Orhodoxy and Islam,’ she added. ‘That’s what’s important: it’s more than a hyphen, it’s… it’s…a means of transportation. The possibility of a passage.’
I looked at her, she seemed to have entirely calmed down. Her hand was resting on the table, a little closer to me. Around us, in the inn’s lush garden, between the vines on the trellises and the trunks of black pines, waitresses in embroidered aprons were carrying heavy trays loaded with carafes that overflowed a little as the girls walked on the gravel, their white wine so freshly drawn from the cask that it was frothy and cloudy. I had wanted to discuss our memories of Syria but instead I found myself holding forth on Danube by Magris. Sarah…

I’ll be honest, I have no idea why I picked this up. It could be the promise of the East, the direction my own internal compass has been pointing to recently, or the promise of music, it might have been the stark blue cover, or possibly the mention in an article or on a podcast, but pick it up I did. What I will also be honest about, is that I can’t exactly say why, but I absolutely loved this book.

Franz Ritter, digesting the knowledge knowing the illness that silently works inside him, tries to rest and sleep but instead his mind fizzes over the implications and so he daydreams and reminisces over his life as a musicologist with a fascination and love of the Middle East, and Compass becomes a love letter to Syria and Iran while the needle of Ritter’s own compass returns to the regular yet seemingly always distant Sarah, a constant companion of his adult life, who he recalls with tender love as if she were a long lost wife, while at the same time knowing he was always an admirer standing on the side, looking in.

Aside from this note found in the article on Balzac, I don’t remember Sarah ever talking to me again about those photos of Istanbul snatched from the rain and from oblivion – I returned depressed to Cihangir, I wanted to say to Bilger (who was having tea at our place when I arrived) that archaeology seemed to me the saddest of activities, that I saw no poetry in ruin, or any pleasure in rummaging through disappearance.

Enard somehow made reading a luxury for me, I deliberately took my time reading this. If I got into bed and could barely keep my eyes open it remained on my bedside table. I chewed the words slowly, the flavours on each page savoured before the next. From the first page I inhaled and soaked up the prose. Long, lush, sumptuous sentences with any number of commas, reminding me of Saramago, while the myriad of recollected references brought back Roberto Bolano, and for me the match was perfect. Strangely what I kept thinking about, was that I believe I’m the only person I know who would enjoy this book, which stripped down, is a long list of literary and musical references with a splash of Middle Eastern history. Yet Enard made it so much more than that, as an painfully honest Ritter recollects his own failings and foibles while being generous about those he remembers with fondness and affection. What emerges is a man with a deep love of music, and a tender story of unrequited love between two people who seem suited, but somehow never take the step into a relationship at the same time, and so remain together but apart.

Another subtle touch by Enard is that the story reads and feels like it is an old story, set in some halcyon era of intellectuals and the glory days of spending endless days on a shoestring budget travelling the world as a scholar. Yet it is very much set now, and the odd comment on the bombs damaging Palmyra or the state of Syria jarred my mind which had lapsed into some olden heyday.

Compass was a book that I did not want to end, but which has led me to a new (for me) author who I look forward to discovering and exploring further.

The location of the Zenobia Hotel was extraordinary: on the side of the ancient city, you had before your eyes, scarcely a few dozen metres away, the Temple of Baal, and if you were lucky enough to get one of the rooms that overlooked the facade, you slept so to speak in the midst of the ruins, your head in the stars and ancient dreams, lulled by the conversations of Baalshamin, god of the sun and dew, with Ishtar, the goddess with the lion. Here reigned Tammuz, the Adonis of the Greeks, of whom Badr Shakir al-Sayyab the Iraqi sang in his poems; you expected to see the oasis covered in red anemones, born from the blood of that mortal whose only crime was to be too beloved of goddesses.