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.