...the beauty of Compass is the sheer breadth and density of its vision, calling forth a multitude of different worlds, bound only by the capacious mind of its narrator ... Énard’s refusal to let one part of the world or one culture assert absolute authority over the other shows his readers how they themselves might shoulder many contradicting realities. No monolithic religion or reality holds sway here ... In reorienting us in the same way, Compass breathes life into the ashes of history, forcing its readers to see anew the world around them.
With divisive rhetoric spouting these days from every direction, Mathias Énard’s magnificent Compass has appeared on our shores at precisely the right time ... There’s an apt symphonic quality to Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Themes appear and return, often in variations. Motifs — illness, dread, shame — lots and lots of shame — return us to Ritter’s bed and his long, dark night of the soul. The genius of Énard’s composition lies in the seemingly random organization of Ritter’s thoughts ... Énard has written a masterful novel that speaks to our current, confused moment in history by highlighting the manifold, vital contributions of Islamic and other Middle Eastern cultures to the European canon.
Compass, a brilliant, elusive, outré love letter to Middle Eastern art and culture, is also a spirited challenge to Said’s masterpiece, which can be felt thrumming beneath the text as an animating anxiety ... The resulting intellectual torrent, vividly translated by Charlotte Mandell, purportedly comprises Ritter’s unwritten 'revolutionary thesis' and reads as equal parts confession, travelogue, and dreamscape ... It is also a powerful vision of the West as unsuspecting cultural mongrel. One of the great joys of the book is to follow Ritter down the rabbit hole of artistic cross-pollination between Orient and Occident ... While there seems to be a reflex to lionize Compass as 'more important than ever,' presumably due to the divisiveness of our current moment, I find myself resistant to this take. It diminishes an extraordinary achievement with the burden of a vague and unconvincing humanism. The brilliance of Énard’s novel — the best we’re likely to receive this year — rests on something more fragile and more ambiguous. Culture is permeable, it proclaims — and just as likely to absorb the bad as the good. We ought to celebrate this coalescence, but we are also morally obliged to take its inventory.
...[a] masterly new novel that attempts to redeem the specter of the Orient ... All of his books share the hope of transposing prose into the empyrean of pure sound, where words can never correspond to stable meanings, but can merely indicate the energies underlying an attempt at stabilizing meanings, and the bitterness that ensues when those attempts inevitably fail (even in Charlotte Mandell’s resoundingly successful translation). Ritter’s record of this pursuit is the record of his pursuit of love — but of a distant love, a doomed love — a love that won’t be returned; not by Sarah, not by the 'foreign' cultures he dwells among, and, most grievously, not by music itself.
Mr. Enard fuses recollection and scholarly digression into a swirling, hypnotic stream-of-consciousness narration ... The immediate reward to the novel’s challenges—in addition to the pleasures of Mr. Enard’s intricate sentences in Charlotte Mandell’s deft translation—is the astonishing banquet of learning on display ... [Franz's] warm-blooded humanism transforms what might have been a dull catalog of textual arcana into a moving appeal for the importance of culture ... this sad yet invigorating novel is both a love letter to a vanishing discipline and an elegy.
As a literary genre, the stream-of-consciousness epic is by now rather old and conservative, even though new versions are regularly hailed as daringly experimental. Compass, in its relentlessly discursive impressiveness, embodies an uncompromising vision of the novel as relatively static political and cultural essay – at least until the final few pages, when, miraculously, real-time events intrude upon Franz’s reverie, and the book concludes with a surprisingly upbeat, if not sentimental, flourish. As the dawn does for our sleepless hero, this comes as a relief to the reader, who emerges from this strangely powerful work as from a feverish dream.
...one conceit of the novel is that Ritter is writing (or imagining he might write) a work of scholarship (or a satire of a work of scholarship) to be called 'On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient' which is (at least in part) the novel we are reading, or it would have been if Ritter had written any of it down. This element of the book is, to be perfectly honest, irritating and a little bit dumb. It doesn’t work as a conceit or as a structural device ... Reading Compass brought me back over and over to a line from Borges: 'A book which does not contain its counter book is considered incomplete.' This novel contains many books and all of their counter books. Ritter himself is a knot of contradiction ... Compass is as challenging, brilliant, and — God help me — important a novel as is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room.
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 ... There is something Sebaldian in Ritter’s encyclopedic erudition and the seamless way that he shifts between personal and historical memory ... 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.
[Enard] occasionally overstuffs Compass with the kind of Orientalist arcana that might be better suited to a scholarly essay. However, when he concentrates on storytelling, as he does in the novel’s second half, there are passages of pure delight with rare insight into the human condition.
...astonishing [and] encyclopedic ... Though occasionally exhausting, Compass is a document of the West’s ongoing fascination with all things Oriental, richly detailed, and a cerebral triumph of learning, as well as translation. For readers who ask literature to do what history and politics cannot, unraveling nard’s arabesque yields a bounty.