Throughout his now-ample body of work, Mathias Enard has portrayed travel – on a ferry in Street of Thieves, on a train in Zone and the still-untranslated L’alcool et la nostalgie – as a goad to thought and reflection. In Compass, his most far-reaching and accomplished book and one of the finest European novels in recent memory, the method of conveyance is the mind: dreams woven by opium, wistful visions rendered up by insomnia. In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which Compass readily evokes, Thomas De Quincey writes, ‘I feel assured that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind.’ Franz Ritter, the narrator of Compass, would probably concur. During a single night spent fretting about his unnamed but possibly fatal illness and cursing the barking of his neighbour’s dog, he offers up, in the midst of musings over Sarah, the object of his barely requited love, an encyclopaedic survey of the intersections between oriental and occidental high culture, together with long excerpts from his imagined masterpiece, entitled On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient.
Franz is a musicologist, undistinguished but secure, with a university post in his native Vienna; his inamorata is a jobless but world-renowned scholar. Franz’s expertise extends from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms (‘the Volkswagen of the lullaby’) to Janissary marching music and the ghazals of the Persian poet Hafez. Sarah studies