Compass by Mathias Énard

The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.

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Edition: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, 480 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

French author Mathias Énard has studied Persian and Arabic and spent long periods of time in the Middle East. His latest novel, Compass, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandel, is a very intelligent, nuanced, and fascinating exploration of the relationship between the East and the West.

The novel follows Franz Ritter an Austrian musicologist who suffers from insomnia and also from an unspecified illness and the whole novel spans only one sleepless night when Franz is reflecting on his past adventures the Middle East and the people he encountered during those journeys, who in various forms share his passion for the Middle East, specifically focusing on a complicated love affair with a fellow scholar Sarah, whose research centres around female Orientalists. Franz is also interested in Orientalism related to the field of music and writes essays on the influence of Middle Eastern music on western composers.

At its core, it explores Europe’s fascination with the Orient throughout history. It challenges the idea of “the East” as something essentially enigmatic and other in contrast to Western culture. By using many examples of different works of art, it shows how Europe culture has always been inspired by Middle Eastern culture. Moreover, he goes on to suggest that Europe itself is a cosmopolitan construct and that this division between east and west is essentially imaginary. He goes into a very detailed analysis tracing the progress of these influences from artist to artist and fascinating as it is, after some points, it can also get a bit tiring.

This is a very dense and intellectual novel. The structure of the novel reminded me a lot of the work of Marcel Proust. In fact,  the novel actually contains direct references and allusions to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, like in this paragraph, when the narrator is visiting in Tehran an exhibition of anatomical models from the 18th century made for the training of army surgeons:

I imagined, almost two centuries earlier, the young doctors-in-training discovering this body of wax – why think about these things before falling asleep, much better to imagine a mother’s kiss on your forehead, that tenderness you wait for at night that never comes,rather than anatomical mannequins opened up from clavicle to abdomen  […].

I wouldn’t call his prose Proustian but it also has a very unusual rhythm that is hard to get into at first, however, once you surrender to the prose, it sweeps you away on a long and fascinating journey through intellectual labyrinths of music, art and literature and taking you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to visit. The narrative is very meandering and fragmented and requires your undivided attention as the author indulges in taking you on different, seemingly unimportant tangents. Like at one point he goes on a tirade against Wagner, which I found quite amusing.

Despite its complexity, I was fascinated with this journey into Franz Ritter’s memories and his love story with the region. I kind of feel that this book deserves to win the Man Booker International prize for the sheer courage of trying to adapt this Proustian structure. Because of this, the book probably won’t have a universal appeal, but for the right reader, who is willing to devote a lot of time on a contemplative book where nothing much happens, this would be a special and rewarding reading experience. In order to immerse yourself in the book, even more, I suggest googling and listening to the pieces of classical music that Franz is referencing.

I’m conflicted about this book because, despite the thought-provoking ideas and topics that the author covers in this book, I started to wonder if this is actually a good novel. There is no plot or character development, most characters, except for Franz and Sarah, suddenly appear and just as quickly disappear from the story, and we don’t really get to know that much about Franz and Sarah either. It kind of felt like I was reading an academic thesis mixed with journal entries. Moreover, the novel includes pictures of documents, extracts from Sarah’s research papers, and different works of literature, and even lengthy e-mails between Franz and Sarah. On the other hand, I felt emotionally moved by some of the passages, which indicates that this isn’t just a thinly disguised cultural essay. Was the main point of the novel a celebration of erudition? Was it meant to be a chronicle of the complicated hate/love relationship between East and West? A disguised political rant? Or all of the above? It’s up for debate. In any case, I think it’s a remarkable piece of writing and I’m curious to read more by Énard.

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The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen

Once you settle on an island, you never leave, an island holds on to what it has with all its might and main.

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Edition: MacLehose Press, 2016, 272 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, is set at the beginning of the 20th century, and is about a family that lives in isolation on a small island off the coast of Norway for generations and their livelihood is entirely dependent on the land and sea.

At the centre of the novel is the location, the island of Barroy, and it’s inhospitable environment. It’s basically a chronicle of the isolated and rural way of life of the Islanders. Every member of the family has to do their share of work to survive in these arduous circumstances. In the course of the novel, we see that it becomes more and more difficult for them to remain disconnected from the rest of Norway, and they’re forced to compromise in order to maintain their lifestyle. The head of the family, Hans has an idea of building a pier to connect the island to the mainland and the other islands to ease the hardships that the family has to endure and to adapt to the changes that are occurring in the country.

This is a very slow moving story that reflects the difficult, often boring, day-to-day life of the islanders, and describes the routine chores that they need to perform depending on the season. Each chapter of the novel feels like a separate episode surrounding a small event that affects the life of the family (such as a construction project, trip to the mainland or trading post), so the novel almost felt like a series of interconnected episodes.

It seems that the Islanders have a very strong, almost religious, connection to nature so the novel has a lot of beautiful and evocative descriptions of the island and the sea, which were my favourite parts of the book. It’s very atmospheric, and I thought it was interesting, how the author’s prose changed from the simple and precise way he described the daily struggles of the family, to the lyrical and dramatic language that he used to describe the storms and the tumultuous sea.

The fate of the family is closely linked to these capricious natural elements and changes in seasons. Weather plays an important part since it can bring sudden changes to their lives. It creates a constant feeling that tragedy is just around the corner, and one unwise decision might ruin their lives. A lot of the focus of the book is concentrated on the daughter Ingrid. We see her grow up from a playful girl to a young woman, who has to come to terms with the challenges of trying to maintain this self-sufficient lifestyle.

I can’t say that I loved this book, but it’s a well written, and if you enjoy slow-paced stories that focus rural life and isolated locations, if the topic of Man vs. Nature appeals to you, you might want to give this a go. My only criticism is that, in some parts, I had some issues with understanding the dialogue. The islanders speak in a specific dialect and the way it was translated into English didn’t really work for me.

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

I have no doubt they would have got up and left long ago, or even booed him off stage, if not for the temptation that is so hard to resist – the temptation to look into another man’s hell.

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Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2016, 198 pages.

Winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, covers a very short stretch of time, only a couple of hours in a seaside bar near Tel Aviv, where the comedian Dovelah G is performing his stand-up show. The audience has come to have a laugh at the end of the week, but it soon becomes clear that Dovelah has other plans, and instead of being entertained, they witness the comedian’s breakdown on stage.

Dovelah G is pitching his performance partly at the audience, but very specifically at one member of the audience, an acquaintance from Dovelah’s past, who’s also the narrator of the novel and is there by special invitation to observe his performance and report back on what he saw. Essentially, to look beyond the act and try to see the true Dovelah. As the evening unfolds, the novel dives into Dovelah G’s past, uncovering a painful relationship between the narrator and a horrific trauma that he experienced.

The way it’s written, makes us you feel like you’re part of the audience that is witnessing this breakdown and it makes it a very uncomfortable reading experience, but you also can’t look away. Dovelah is challenging you to look away and makes you consider how much you would be prepared to endure and whether you would decide to leave. It’s great at creating a claustrophobic atmosphere; like you’re stuck in the room as a prisoner, and it puts you in the state of constant anxiety. It’s a short book, but I couldn’t read more than a couple of pages at a time, because I kept anticipating that at any moment a line will be crossed from which there is no going back. It’s a very emotionally draining read.

In many ways it feels like a state of the nation novel, depicting how the country is still struggling with post-holocaust trauma and trying to make the political personal. Through comedy, Dovelah highlights some of the uncomfortable truths about the past and current situation in Israel. He does tell some simple jokes, in order to placate the audience that is becoming increasingly angry, but as the evening proceeds, he starts introducing more controversial material and directly addressing some of the audience members. It becomes clear that his real objective is to recount a traumatic event from his past that he has kept secret all his life.

There is a lot of pain in these pages, but I thought the book was fascinating because only at the end of the book I came to a realisation how much I grew to care about Dovelah, despite his quite unlikeable personality. The novel confronts you with raw emotion and brutal honesty while explores the role of the spectator and what it means to be part of an audience.

It’s a flawed novel, and I’m not sure if it succeeds in delivering the final punchline, but at the same time the disjointed and fragmented way in which Dovelah recounted his story felt like an accurate depiction of trauma. It makes sense that the only way he could approach this story was in this strange, kind of meandering way. This is not the type of book that you enjoy reading, but it’s a powerful depiction of trauma and an honest exploration of uncomfortable truths.

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