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