One way of viewing the world: ‘Compass’ by Mathias Enard

105.Mathias Enard-Compass

I wonder if in future years, ‘Compass’ will appeal to those in search of obscure book challenges.  The novel is set over one insomniac night; instead of chapters, we are given timings, starting (after a prelude) at 11.10pm and tracking the night hours till 6 in the morning.  If it wasn’t for having to go to work in the morning, I would have been sorely tempted to see if I could keep track with the narrator.  I’m sure it would have been a stretch (it’s a long book) but it would have been a great way to read the rambling, circular prose.

One of the reasons this target-driven project so appeals to me is that, aside from the timing notifications, the ‘Compass’ seems ironically fond of losing itself along tangents.  The title comes from a joke present given to our narrator Franz, a replica of Beethoven’s compass, altered so that ‘pulled unremittingly by magnetism, on its drop of water, the double red and blue needle points east‘.  The contents of the novel are also constantly pulled to the East, the focus of Franz’s study and the obsession of the woman he loves.

‘Compass’ convincingly takes us into the mind of an academic fixated on a scholarly topic.  There are digressions about music, art, history, archeology, medicine … everything links together and reinforces the idea that the concept of the ‘East’ is the paramount obsession of the West.  The incidental details are fascinating, especially the biographies of eccentric early ‘Orientalists.’  Less convincing are the comments on the current reality of the region.  Franz tells us ‘I’d like to write a long article on Julien Jalaleddin Weiss, homonymous with Leopold, another convert, who has just died of cancer, a cancer that coincides so much with the destruction of Aleppo and Syria that one could wonder if the two events are linked‘.  I think the point being made is that those who love Syrian culture have been devastated by the tragedies that have befallen the region, but I am deeply uncomfortable both with the suggestion that cancer is linked to foreign wars and with what seems horribly close to European appropriation of a Middle-Eastern country’s loss and grief.

The fact is, ‘Compass’ is interested in the cerebral rather than the physical.  We’re told that Franz suffers from a debilitating illness (hence the insomnia) but he is uncharacteristically reticent about specifics, giving the excuse that ‘I don’t want to plunge into these names of disease …‘  The love of his life, Sarah, is as close as the novel gets to a woman of action, and we discover that she spends most of her time meditating in Buddhist retreats.  If you want a nighttime ramble through European myths of the Middle East, ‘Compass’ will be a rewarding read, filled with unexpected historical gems and a wealth of trivia about the Western obsession with the Orient.  For me, many of the conclusions don’t hold up in the cold light of day, though that may not be the point.  As the book’s title suggests, it probably depends on how you approach it.

I received my copy of ‘Compass’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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This entry was posted in Man Booker International Prize 2017, Mathias Enard, Reading in translation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to One way of viewing the world: ‘Compass’ by Mathias Enard

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Hmm, I may have some issues with the ‘Orientalism’ view of the world, as defined by Edward Said as well. But I will see when I read this… I also have bought Zone by the same author, and that has been highly praised.

    • This has also received a very positive critical reception, and from what I’ve read I think I’m in the minority with the issues I felt ran through it. I’d be interested to hear your views.

  2. roughghosts says:

    I did finally buy this book after direct conversations with several people who have read it. I am a little more ambivalent about Zone, so I wasn’t rushing out to grab this one. As for the discomfort with the question of “Orientalism”, I can assure that has come up in many of the reviews I’ve read. However, when one is reading a book so deeply bound to the thoughts and eccentric interests of the protagonist, views like that are not only in keeping with character and bring to light perspectives that were (and to some degree still are) prevalent, but to feel discomfort is not wrong.

    • You’re right and the book is very convincing at presenting Franz’s point of view without implying that this is the only or the best way to see the world. Franz is very much a flawed first person narrator and the book is successful in presenting his flawed view of the world. It’s just that it is a long time to spend with someone who’s opinions are so troubling …
      I’m pleased to see I was reading the wrong reviews though! I feel much better about the book knowing that it wasn’t just me who found this aspect of it problematic 🙂

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