The English version of Compass is translated by Charlotte Mandell and being published by New Directions in the U.S. and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K. It won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
Compass takes place over the course of one, long night during which Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, suffers from a terrible bout of insomnia. The symptoms from his recently diagnosed illness, the memories of an unrequited love, and the dissatisfaction at his mediocre academic career all contribute to his sleepless night. Instead of chapters, Énard uses time stamps to denote the hours that are slowly ticking away as Franz runs through years of memories. Sarah, a French Academic with whom Franz has spent many years in love, sends him an article she has written from Sarawak, in Malaysia, which is her current place of residence. It is unclear at the beginning what Franz and Sarah mean or have meant to each other, but Franz slowly unravels their complicated history throughout the course of his sleepless night.
As an academic musicologist, Franz has had a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, which studies have brought him into close contact with many orientalists, including Sarah. Compass is a travelogue, an historical essay, a literary catalog and a music lesson on the Orient. Franz takes us on his travels from Istanbul, to Palmyra, to Damascus, to Aleppo and to Tehran as he explores eastern music and his growing, emotional attachment to Sarah. The Orient becomes just as beautiful, enchanting and elusive as his love for Sarah. When Franz and Sarah are suddenly forced to end their travels together in Tehran, Franz nurses his wounds by going back home and retreating into himself and his academic career. Sarah consoles herself by wandering father east where she ends up spending quite a bit of time in a Buddhist monastery. But the objects in his apartment are a constant reminder of his travels with her in the east:
My glasses were under a pile of books and journals, obviously, I’m so absentminded. At the same time, to contemplate the ruins of my bedroom (ruins of Istanbul, ruins of Damascus, ruins of Tehran, ruins of myself) I don’t need to see them, I know all these objects by hear. The faded photographs and yellowing Orientalist engravings. The poetic works of Pessoa on a sculpted wooden book stand meant to house the Koran. My tarboosh from Istanbul, my heavy wood indoor coat from the souk in Damascus, my lute from Aleppo bought with Nadim.
The disjointed and rambling narrative structure is fitting for a man whose mind cannot rest over the course of a sleepless night. He jumps from one topic to the next: his illness, musicology, literature, archaeology and, of course, Sarah. Some might find this stream-of-consciousness style frustrating but a more straightforward narrative would not have been as fitting or appropriate for Franz’s state-of-mind and circumstances. One common thread that runs through his thoughts are the connections between East and West. He has a joke compass that points east which is fitting for Franz since his thoughts are always pulled in that direction. He discusses travelers, writers, musicians, academics and archaeologists who were fascinated by Orientalist travels and study. One of my favorite examples Franz brings up is the Swiss author, journalist, traveler, and even occasional archaeologists, Annmarie Schwarzenbach whose wanderlust brings her to different parts of the East. Schwarzenbach flees the turmoil brewing in Europe in 1933-34 and travels to Syrian and the desert, where Franz and Sarah follow in the footsteps of this interesting woman’s Eastern journey.
More than any other book I have ever read, Compass made me want to travel to the Middle East, to the desert and to the ancient ruins of the Orient; but the narrative also made me sad that such a journey isn’t feasible nowadays. The Baron Hotel that Franz and Sarah stay at in Aleppo, and probably the entire neighborhood, has been reduced to a pile of rubble. The descriptions of his travels in Palmyra were particularly striking to me. Franz and Sarah, with a few other travel companions, sleep among the ruins of an ancient fort in Palmyra: “A night when the sky was so pure and the stars so numerous that they came down all the way to the ground, lower than you could see, in the summer, when the sea is calm and dark as the Syrian badiya.”
Finally, I have never read a book that has caused me to buy so many other books based on the literary observations contained within. My “to-read” stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week as I made my way through Compass. The amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this erudite book is astonishing. Descriptions of Pessoa, Magris, Schwarzenbach and Hedayat to name a few, have caused me to add all of these authors to my always-growing library. Some of the writers Enard mentions are so esoteric that I was disappointed not to find them in English translation—the surrealist French poet Germain Nouveau, for example. It is truly a great thing when one piece of literature gives one such a full list of further reading. One could form an interesting book club to go through the volumes mentioned in Compass and spend many months exploring and discussing Franz’s syllabus.
What have others thought of Compass? Will it make the shortlist? How does it compare to his previous novel, Zone?
About the Author and Translator:
Mathias Énard is the award-winning author of Zone and Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 for Compass.
Charlotte Mandell is a French literary translator who was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She went to Boston Latin High School, the Université de Paris III, and Bard College, where she majored in French literature and film theory. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly.