“Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.”
But that is exactly what Franz Ritter is doing one night; as he struggles to find sleep, he is reviewing his life, his time with Sarah and the joy he felt in her presence.
They met at a conference held at Hainfield Castle in Vienna, and have since taken strolls or eaten meals in Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran and Aleppo.
“I have to admit that, even though I am not what could be called a hedonist or a gourmet, the setting, the food and the excellent Lebanese wine they served there (and especially the company of Sarah, whose beauty was brought out by the Ottoman cortile, the jewels, the cloth, the wooden mashraybiyas) have fixed that evening in my memory; we were princes, princes from the West whom the Orient was welcoming and treating as such, with refinement, obsequiousness, suave languor, and all of this, conforming to the image our youth had constructed of the Oriental myth, gave us the impression of finally living in the lost lands of the Thousand and One Nights, which has reappeared for us alone: no foreigner, in that early spring, to spoil its exclusivity; our fellow diners were a rich family from Aleppo celebrating a patriarch’s birthday, whose women, bejeweled, wearing white lace blouses with strict black wool vests, kept smiling at Sarah.”
You can see how the sentences, which are often a full paragraph in length, contribute to the dream-like quality, while at the same time giving us a perfect sense of place.
And because Franz is a musicologist as well as narrator and dreamer, we are introduced to music and composers such as we may have been previously unaware. Take Felicien David, for instance, who became famous on December 8, 1844, after the premiere of Le Desert which is a symphony in three parts based on the composer’s memories of a journey to the Orient. (What a beautiful piece of music it is.)
“…memory is the only thing I don’t lack, the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body…”
His recounting of a night he slept with Sarah seems to embody not only their relationship, but the love-hate relationship of the East and the West. Perhaps we may admire each other, even partake in the glorious offerings each has to offer, but can we truly ever understand each other? Can we truly be united? It seems an invisible line divides us, one that try as we might, can never be fully dissolved.
We spend a restless night with Franz, tossing and turning, unable to find the peace required to rest. Each “chapter” is instead listed with a time stamp, recording the hour and the intricacies of his thoughts. They are tangled and knotted; he tries to sort out his memories, his relationships, his past which is inextricable from music and stories and historical figures.
My fellow shadow jury members are well taken with this book, and for its sense of beauty, its important themes, and well wrought sentences, I can concur. It certainly has more power than the trite Mirror, Shoulders, Signal, or cumbersome Explosion Chronicles. I fully expect Compass to be on the jury’s short list, as well as the official short list which will be announced April 20.
Compass by Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on March 22, 2017