Focus on Compass - Man Booker International Prize 2017

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The Man Booker International Prize celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world. The prize is awarded every year for a single book, which is translated into English and published in the UK. Both novels and short-story collections are eligible, and the writer and translator are rewarded equally for their contribution.

The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.

Compass

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: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape.

At the centre of these memories is his elusive, unrequited love, Sarah, a fiercely intelligent French scholar caught in the intricate tension between Europe and the Middle East. An immersive, nocturnal, musical novel, full of generous erudition and bittersweet humour, Compass is a journey and a declaration of admiration, a quest for the otherness inside us all and a hand reaching out – like a bridge between West and East, yesterday and tomorrow.

Get involved

Have you read Compass? Do you want to know what other readers thought? You can leave a review, read a review or add the book to your group’s reading list.

Want to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for Compass, including information about the author and translator, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.

Want ideas on what to read next? We’ve created a supporting booklist with suggestions of other books that you might like to try if you enjoyed Compass, which also look at the borders between dreams, memories and reality.

A word from Found in Translation

Found in Translation are one of the brilliant reading groups shadowing the prize this year, and have been reading Compass. Here is their overview of the book and their experience.

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“Franz, a forty-something Viennese musicologist, spends a restless night, worried about impending results of medical tests, his mind flooded by memories of his relationship with Sarah, a Parisian orientalist, and their travels and life together and apart, in Istanbul, Damascus, Tehran and, in Sarah’s case, India and further east. The image of compass/directions/travel/orientation between West and East underlies the personal and intellectual themes of the book.

While all in our Found in Translation reading group appreciated the vast erudition underlying the novel and the author’s conveying of academic subjects, such as musicology and art history, without jargon – a quietly humourous contrast to the jargon appearing in the quotations from Sarah’s academic works – we were split between those who found that the immense amount of detail and considerable philosophising slowed down the development of the non-conventional plot-line, and those more sympathetic to the idea that a restless, insomnia-prone, highly educated person, assailed by regrets, (personal and professional), would wander in his mind through very specific, detailed memories, and bring in a myriad of references to those authors, poets, musicians, artists, historians and archaeologists engaged in cultural exchanges between West and East, and would in particular explore the character of Sarah, their relationship, and his regrets at their separation. Indeed the book opens and closes with a verse from Winterreise where the singer longs for the return of the beloved – and this is indeed promised at the end of the book.

We enjoyed the book’s mordant humour at the expense of an annoying neighbour and his dog, of academics and colleagues, and of Franz’s own foibles; and these little details, plus the poetic descriptions of places, the sharp observation of character, and the harrowing political reportage of various upheavals in Iran and Syria, do allow the densely-wrought material to breathe, and help maintain the interest of the reader throughout what is, admittedly, a demanding piece of high literature, perhaps philosophical in the French style, one which touches on interconnections between the culture, history and politics of East and West.

We found that the technique of stream of consciousness, shifting between present and past tenses, interrupted by quotations from letters, articles, diary entries, with added photographs, perfectly suited the content of the novel. We also felt that Enard’s evocative style was well-served by the exploration of the theme of the West’s perceived view of the role of opium in Oriental life and of the transcultural theme of ‘saudade’, that is, melancholy or nostalgia, salvable by opium. Indeed this evocation of saudade reminded us of the role played by ‘hazun’, meaning a haze of sorrow and longing, in Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, another book in translation that we discussed in our reading group.

Enard’s book is at heart a plea for intercommunication, interconnectedness, a recognition of the necessity of diversity and of the other in the self (the varied nature of the self), especially between the Occident and the Orient, particularly vital in these times; a plea for a humane spirituality, such as Sarah’s Buddhism; and the highlighting of the revivifying nature of love.

All were agreed that the translator, Charlotte Mandell, had done a magnificent job in rendering so beautifully into English such a subtle, serpentine and densely detailed text."

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