Book review: Mathias Énard’s Compass takes a different direction
Mathias Énard’s first novel to be translated into English was a 500-page monologue by a spy on a train, published as a single sentence. Zone was Énard writ large – poetic, audacious, maddeningly digressive: even the most ardent of his fans often talk of wanting to throw his books across the room in exasperation.
This is a state of affairs that might, perhaps, make his new novel in translation, Compass, somewhat daunting. It is certainly an acquired taste – not everyone will be immediately beguiled by the prospect of a dreamlike journey into the thoughts, travels and Orientalist worldview of an unsuccessful and unwell Austrian musicologist, constantly interrupted by references to intellectual and cultural history.
The plot, such as it is, features Franz Ritter spending a long night in Vienna, deep in profound thought about everything from his feelings about Orientalist scholar Sarah, to the complex relationship between Europe and the Middle East.
His travels around the Middle East – which Énard himself has done, and there are some lovely descriptions of pre-war Aleppo and Damascus – lead him to believe that many of the seismic cultural charges in the West had their genesis in the “Orient”.
If only more Europeans could adopt Énard’s enlightened approach here. In the sections that discuss violent fundamentalism, ISIL’s rise isn’t glossed over – but it is argued as a reflection of the depravity of humanity rather than characteristic of a religion, and there is a nod to the historical context of barbaric colonialism, too.
Given Énard is an Arabic scholar with a deep understanding of the region, none of this feels forced. However, whether Compass acts as a fully functioning novel is less clear – there is a lot of scholarly context and essaying before we get to more traditional storytelling.
By that rationale, huge credit must also go to Charlotte Mandell who, one suspects, has had to battle with some of Énard’s more poetic urges to make this extended thesis on the connections between East and West so readable.
If you are not minded to throw the book across the room, then it may well be thanks to her skill in translation.
• Compass is out now