By Mathias Enard, and Charlotte Mandell
As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life as an Orientalist.Tweet
'Compass', by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell)
This novel focuses on interchanges over the years between West and East (and Far East) involving a huge range of historical, cultural, intellectual and spiritual influences. It is an intensely engaging book, hugely informative, and beautifully written and translated.
The novel centres on a forty-something Viennese musicologist, Franz, with family backround in Tubingen (a link with the poet Hoelderin) and Touraine (a link with Balzac), self-conscious, hypochondrical, insomniacal, lying awake throughout a winter's night worrying about medical tests, with his mind consumed by thoughts about his (almost) unrequited love for Sarah, a Parisian Orientalist of Jewish background, that has spanned twenty or so years; their individual and joint explorations of literary, musical, archaeological and historical links with the Orient growing out of time spent living in Turkey, Iraq and Iran; and, in Sarah's case, her subsequent flight to India and the Far East. The subtext of the novel is the fascination for the West of the myth of the sensuous and opium-filled Arabic and Persian worlds, relayed through such sources as A Thousand and One Nights and the poetry of Omar Khayyam, that have proved an irresistible draw for the adventurous, some of whom have followed this dream to madness or death.
While the main thrust of the novel is immensely wide-ranging and general, mentioning French and German authors, poets and composers who were fascinated by Arabic and Persian culture, as well as international teams of archaeologists, explorers and adventurers - and the obverse influence of the Ottoman and Moorish worlds on Western culture - eventually the novel ends on an intensely personal note, with Franz and Sarah, centred on a quotation from Mueller and Schubert's Winterreise that expresses a longing for a return of the beloved, in this case Sarah, who has travelled ever further East immersed in the Buddhist faith, following the death of a beloved brother, until there is no further to run.
The novel is intensely observed, not only concerning friends and acquaintances of the two main protagonists, and of the foibles of these characters, but even, amusingly, of Franz's annoying upstairs neighbour and his equally annoying dog, and of their all too predictable nocturnal habits. Throughout, then, there is an engagingly human aspect to the novel.
Particularly rivetting is the section on the Khomeni revolution in Iran. Also of great interest is the account of the highly lucrative trade in archaeological artefacts filched from Middle Eastern digs, and of the relations between the Western archaeologists and the local labourers who do the actual digging.
So it goes: the characters in the novel follow their individual real-world and spiritual compasses, crossing and bypassing each other, filling the novel with an almost infinitely layered tapestry of lives.
The novel opens with a half-page of somewhat over-blown prose, which causes one to worry, but quickly regains focus. The concentration on Franz's voice over the first circa 150 pages threatens to become claustrophobic, but the novel's viewpoint broadens out just at the right moment to embrace various characterful acquaintances, and from then on the novel becomes richer and richer in content. There is a page or two of statements of the obvious, about characters engaging not with the Orient, but with their idea of the Orient, or even with the idea of another's idea of the Orient, that was overly sententious.
The novel is beautifully translated into literary American English, employing a huge vocabulary ('alterity' is my favourite new word), although occasionally, to Irish/Scottish ears, the phrasing seems just a little inappropriately informal. And there are one or two linguistic infelicities: surely 'arose' on p.356 should be 'aroused'? (Or is this a typographical error?)
There is no mention of mathematical, astronomical or medical borrowings between the cultures, or even of the trade in dyes, spices, … But perhaps that is for another book.
Fascinating and elegantly written idiosyncratic history of European fascination with the Orient; the author's favourite glimpses of history, and much cultural gossip. Less satisfying as a novel with a romantic/failed romantic theme. Beautifully produced book, and timely reminder of the history leading to current events.
This is not an easy book, but it is well worth the time and effort. It is beautifully written, and flows over the reader like a soft, gentle piece of music, with a careful and precise use of language in the excellent translation. Cultural references abound, ranging widely from East to West and back again, neatly finding links and interlacing the past and the present. The central character, Franz's, thoughts drift through many significant moments in his life, and particularly his love of Sarah, whilst also describing his endless fascination for musicology and its influence on him.
With its very many references to the arts, this book does present something of a challenge to the reader, torn between looking them all up, and letting them flow by. By letting the stream of consciousness flow, however, the integrity and shape of the novel is maintained and the full power of the finale given full vent. Until that point, the reader feels a sense of bewilderment, being tugged from West to East, a sense of uncertainty about the direction, if any, of the novel. Franz's compass, which always points East, reflects his direction and the way he is pointing us, as he reflects on what the cultures of East and West have, and have had, in common. This novel awakens a sense of hope, despite Franz's own sense of mortality, that the cultural links, past and present, are so strong that they can survive, even when so much else has been destroyed.
Compass, a great title for a book that takes the reader on such an amazing journey - geographical, political and cultural - and all this through the reminiscing of one man during a sleepless night in his apartment in Vienna. That man is Frank Ritter, a forty-something musicologist and Orientalist, awaiting test results for an un-named illness.
I read this book slowly, digesting its themes: East/West; Connections ; The other in the self and Sarah, the rather enigmatic lady who figures largely in Ritter's remembering.
From a personal viewpoint Ritter's coverage of the political history of Iran in particular was fascinating as I was living in Saudi Arabia when the Shah of Persia was deposed. The political background connections between the East and the West were so informative and thought-provoking in light of current events. (I learned a lot)
The 'other in the self' was intriguing and I felt that each reader could interpret and relate to this from an individual angle.
Sarah provides one of the contrasts in this novel. Ritter is obsessed by her, both physically and psychologically but she remains much of a mystery to the reader. Ritter's thoughts are triggered by an article she has sent which lead him back to shared experiences in many different places: adventures in the desert and in cities such as Tehran.
Music provides more reminiscences for Ritter and another learning curve for me. His connections between Eastern musicians (many unknown to me) and more familiar Western composers, e.g. Rimsky-Korsakov with his ballet 'Scheherazade' for Diaghilev's company. The influences going East/West and vice versa in literature and poetry were also fascinating.
In art too there were discoveries for me: Halil Pasha commissioning Courbet's erotic paintings, 'Sleepers' and 'The Origin of the world' was an interesting connection.
Another contrast effect for me was differences between Ritter's rather philosophical remembering and his almost mundane thoughts of the moment: getting up to find something, losing things, etc., some of which were really amusing, 'I don't throw anything out and yet I lose everything.'
There are some beautifully descriptive passages in the book: '...when the minarets of old Istanbul streaked the sky with their lances, their pencils to write the hundredth name of God in the pure hollow of the clouds..' and when describing music and Opera.
We never quite find out about Ritter's illness but we are left with some hope for a reconciliation with his love, Sarah.
I could go on and on but shall finish with praise for Charlotte Mandel's beautifully sensitive transcription of Mathias Enard's work.
I shall read and reread this book and I am sure get more and more out of it each time.
Naturally I wish very much that 'Compass' wins the Man Booker prize for 2017 but I certainly want to thank Man Booker for allowing my group to be a small part of this. It has been an amazing personal journey.
Although we follow the narrator of Compass over the course of a single sleepless night, there is nothing dreamlike in the way musicologist Franz Ritter muses on his life, the many interesting places in the Middle East where his research has taken him, and especially his relationship with Sarah, a French Oriental scholar and the object of his affections. On the contrary, Ritter/Énard describes with great perspicacity a vast panoply of characters, both historical and invented, and reflects on the intersection of East and West, the Occident and the Orient, in the lives and works of poets, writers, musicians, artists, philosophers, historians, archaeologists and explorers down the ages. Within the first few pages the narrator has mentioned Rumi, Debussy, Britten, Hedayat, Khayyam, Gracq, Breton, Proust and Kafka, and hundreds more of that ilk are name-checked in the course of the next 470 pages. As a result, the book is extremely dense and sometimes comes across less as a novel and more as an academic commentary packaged in a love story between intellectuals. Unfortunately, the latter aspect is less convincing and does not really take off until near the end of the book.
That's not to say that it's dry or boring; indeed there is much that is fascinating in the discursive ramblings of the narrator. Besides writers and artists, Compass is peopled with many intriguing historical figures such as the Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Lady Hester Stanhope, and Marga d'Andurain, "Countess of Palmyra", reputed to have poisoned her husband, whose real-life stories are much more interesting than those of the novel's ancillary characters such as Bilger and Faugier. Sarah's husband, a Syrian musician, barely gets a mention and seems merely to serve as a plot device to keep Sarah unattainable.
Franz's yearning for the ever elusive Sarah – the distant beloved addicted to travelling – mirrors western attitudes to the Orient: the pursuit of the mysterious and seeking to understand, but at the same time the desire to pin down and by so doing take possession. The theme of alterity and the other in the self is explored here. Perhaps we need an "other" in contrast to which we can define our own identity? How can we escape "the violence of imposed identities"? However, as Énard ultimately shows through the voice of Sarah, "All of Europe is in the Orient. Everything is cosmopolitan, interdependent", and we "need to rid ourselves of this absurd idea of the absolute otherness of Islam".
For me the most engaging sections are when Franz is recalling his experiences in places such as Hormuz and Tehran, expeditions with Sarah and colleagues into the desert, and the rituals surrounding his initiation into smoking opium in Istanbul. There is some humour at the expense of academics too: a French university is described as a "secular monastery where the novitiate can last an entire lifetime". The erudite narrator also strews in countless interesting historical titbits along the way, ranging from the various forms of decapitation favoured by different societies, to the origins of the concept of Aryanism and the fact that the first call for jihad came from the Austrians and Germans in order to encourage Muslims to rise up against the British and French colonial powers during the Great War.
Given the current turmoil across the Middle East, the rise of jihadist movements and the anti-Islam sentiment engendered in the West, Compass is a timely reminder of the innumerable oriental influences that have enriched Western culture over the centuries and highlights what a tragic loss the destruction of so much heritage represents. As Sarah says, "history could be read in an entirely different way, in sharing and continuity".
Finally, a word about the impeccable translation: despite the author's lengthy sentences and the often dense philosophical nature of the subject-matter, Charlotte Mandell keeps the prose flowing along beautifully. Like all great translators, you don't even notice she's there.
Compass is not an ordinary novel. It's an interesting mix of a fictional love story and an epic overview of the complex relationship between East and West told by the main character (Austrian musicologist Ritter) in the course of one sleepless night.
It's not an easy read: it's full of lengthy sentences, multiple bibliographical sketches and erudite references to the history of the Orient. However, if you allow yourself to be drawn into Enard's beautiful prose, you will definitely enjoy the journey. A long but exciting journey to Istanbul, Aleppo, Palmyra, Tehran, Vienna and Paris. You will follow in the footsteps of musicians, writers, archaeologists and orientalists enchanted by the mysteries of the East.
I really enjoyed it and I believe it deserves to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017.
A deep exploration of the human psyche. A long reflection on life, which, as Franz says, is ‘a long meditation on death’. A thought-provoking depiction of the beauty and richness of the Orient – that same Orient that these days, these very last hours, is the supreme symbol of hatred, fear and death. A sentimental journey that unexpectedly ends with a note of hope. Compass defies any label; it reveals a profound and rare understanding of human existence, an understanding which cannot be ascribed to a genre but only characterizes masterpieces. This literary work captures the pain, the joy, the complexity of being human, and seems to suggest something pivotal that too often we tend to forget: real life is not outside but within us.
A book that I would definitely recommend.