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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Judas by Amos Oz

“Blessed are the dreamers, and cursed be the man who opens their eyes. True, the dreamers cannot save us, neither they nor their disciples, but without dreamers the curse that lies upon us would be seven times heavier. Thanks to the dreamers, maybe we who are awake are a little less ossified and desperate than we would be without them.”

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Edition: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 320 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Judas, the latest novel by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, is set in 1969, and follows Shmuel Ash, a young, sensitive, idealist, infatuated with socialist ideas, who’s working on his post-graduate thesis on the topic “Jewish views of Jesus”. Due to certain circumstances, he has to abandon his studies and he applies for the job of a companion in exchange for room and board to an elderly, highly intellectual but cynical man, called Gersham Wald, who’s a recluse and is basically in need of a good discussion partner.

He shares the house with Atalia, a beautiful, middle-aged woman, who has become resentful toward the world and she has good reasons for that. She is the daughter of a deceased Zionist leader, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler, because we find that out very early in the novel that her father was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel and thus considered by many to be a traitor.

The novel spans only one winter and focuses on their long, thought-provoking philosophical discussions. Gersham Wald and Shmuel Ash represent two opposing, but very convincing worldviews, and I like how the book is fair at presenting both of their positions on various topics. By the end of the book, these three people end up changing each other and forming an unlikely family.

The novel invites the reader to reconsider the image of the traitor, tracing it back to the biblical story of Judas Iscariot, whose name has become synonymous with betrayal and, to certain people, even the synonym for Jewish people that has lead to horrifying consequences throughout history. So in this compact novel, Oz offers an alternative, and I must say, very convincing and nuanced version of the story of Judas, and it was very interesting to consider how a small change in the interpretation can shed a completely different light on a well-known story.

The overarching themes of the novel are treason and loyalty, and these themes are explored from different perspectives – from the political, historical, and religious to the very personal, and I think the success of this novel lies in it’s multi-layered approach to the idea of betrayal. He puts forward the idea that many people throughout history, who were ahead of their time, were accused of being traitors by their contemporaries, and asks the question at which point and by whose verdict does an idealist, who seeks to reform the world, become a traitor?

What I also loved about this novel is that, although I think it’s clear that, first and foremost, this is a novel of ideas, it’s also a classic coming-of-age story. Over the course of the novel, Shmuel Ash has to ask himself very hard questions and reconsider some of his views of the world. And in addition to that, the novel is also a story of love, remorse and loneliness, and a vivid portrait of divided Jerusalem of the time.

The novel felt like a quiet provocation, but I felt that its core message is an appeal for compassion and genuine discussion, even if it means entertaining a completely opposite point of view. I really loved this book, and I’m curious to read more by Oz.

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

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Edition: Pushkin Press, 2017, 188 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, follows Sonja, a forty-something year old woman living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of crime novels, and the novel basically focuses on her struggle to get her driver’s license. We get to hear her thoughts about her everyday frustrations and the current state of her life, and how she’s trying to change the course of it. She feels stuck so through the small, symbolic act of learning to drive, she seems to be making her first steps toward becoming more in control of her life. She also suffers from a form of positional vertigo that she’s trying to hide.

The novel explores the life of a woman, who lives on her own and isn’t defined by her relationships with other people. In some ways, it is also an existential novel. Sonja is superstitious and fatalistic and she believes that her misfortune is predetermined by an encounter with a fortuneteller. She spends a lot of time worrying about her future and struggling to find a way out of her situation.

Sonja spends a lot of time looking back at events from her past, especially returning to her childhood growing up in a rural area where she felt a very spiritual connection to nature that she can’t seem to find in the big city, and one of the major themes of the novel is urban isolation. Sonja doesn’t enjoy living in Copenhagen and she wants to reconnect with her sister Kate, who stayed and made a life for herself close to her hometown. The novel discusses how young people from rural areas, who have received a good education, are encouraged to leave their hometown to pursue a career in a big city. Urban life is seen as a way to fulfilment, but for some people, it only leads to loneliness and isolation. It’s an interesting idea and can imagine that many people feel this way, but as a city girl, born and raised, I couldn’t really relate to that on an emotional level. And overall, while the author explored some interesting themes, the novel didn’t really work for me.

I felt very emotionally disconnected from the characters and some of Sonja’s actions felt very juvenile. She’s the kind of person that wants other people to reach out to her but is kinda insensitive and judgmental about the weird quirks and beliefs of others. And I don’t like saying this, but for me, this novel was just kinda boring and my mind would constantly drift away to something else while I was reading it. I don’t think it’s a bad book, the tone is lighthearted and sometimes witty, but I felt like there wasn’t much there on the surface. The style of the prose is minimalistic and I felt like the author was inviting me to try to read between the lines and find some hidden meaning, and sometimes that works, but in this case, I didn’t care enough to search for it. I know that the author is better known for her short stories and, even though it’s not a long novel, I think this story might have worked better in short story form. I don’t want to discourage you from picking it up, it’s a quick read that explores some interesting topics, but it just wasn’t my kind of story.

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.

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Edition: Oneworld, 2017, 151 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is an short, surreal and suspenseful Argentinian novel about a woman named Amanda, who lies dying in a hospital, and is recounting to a boy named David, who’s not her son, the events of the last couple of days of her life.

We find out that Amanda came on vacation to the country with her young daughter Nina and from there the events of the novel are unravelling at a very fast, feverish pace, so I think the best way to experience it, is to go through it in one sitting.

This is a very intense and atmospheric novel that pushes you along although you’re not quite sure what is happening. It requires you to try to piece together the story by yourself, and you’ll still probably walk away with many questions. At the same time, as strange and disorienting as it is, it feels like the author remains in control of the narrative and doesn’t let it become annoyingly confusing. The tension is enhanced when you notice that David seems to be leading her narrative; he constantly instructs Amanda on what is important and what she should focus on; making sure that she doesn’t stray from the intended course of the story.

The story is terrifying because of the unknown, and it gently creeps into your imagination as you try to fit all the pieces together and come up with reasonable explanations. The novel reads like an unconventional horror story about motherhood. It seems that, at its core, it looks at the link between mother and child, that is described almost as a physical thing, a rope that is tied to Amanda’s stomach from the outside and that she feels is pulling at her. This idea of the rope is linked to what Amanda has named the rescue distance, which is the variable distance separating her from her daughter in case something bad may happen. She is constantly anxious and alert over the safety of her child that is very common among parents, young parents in particular. The novel explores that fear of being responsible for someone so fragile, who requires your protection, and how easy something could happen without you expecting it. The author is great at creating this sense of danger, so much so that even you as the reader start to worry about Nina and become suspicious about all the other characters.

Even though I’m still not sure if I completely understood the underlying message of this novel, I was engrossed in the story and I look forward to seeing what the author writes next.

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War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

“Time has abandoned us; we have slipped into a dim, unreal fold in its fabric, with no beginning or end in sight. Season follows season, the clouds drift overhead, fabulous white beasts and capricious gods in the noonday light; we are old before our time, we behave like housebound, fatalistic children, numbed and indifferent to life and death. ”

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Edition: Text Publishing, 2016, 336 pages.

War and Turpentine is a Belgian novel written by Stefan Hertmans and translated from the Dutch by David McKay that blurs the lines between fact and fiction and recounts the life of the author’s grandfather Urbain Martien, who, shortly before his death, gave his grandson a set of journals containing the memories of his life, and the author used these recollections and intertwined them with his own memories and ruminations to create this novel.

Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain was born at the end of the 19th century when Flanders was very poor, a time when both the socialist movement and Christian organizations were trying, in their own way, to help the workers, who were living in very difficult conditions, and Europe was unaware that it was heading toward a catastrophe that would determine the course of his grandfather’s life forever.

The first section of the book is devoted to Urbain’s childhood, growing up in poverty, when in order to help support his family, he had to start working in an iron foundry from a very early age. His father was a struggling church painter and from him, Urbain inherited his great love for painting that provided him comfort throughout his life.

The middle and most important section focuses on his grandfather’s experiences during his service in the trenches of the First World War, and the horrific trauma that he suffered, which essentially overshadowed his whole life. This part of the novel also marks a shift in the narrative. It feels like the author steps back from his lyrical prose that occasionally steers into the direction of sentimentality, in favour of his grandfather’s stark yet elegant first-person narrative. Even though Urbain started writing his memoirs 50 years after the war, his testimony of the terror, cold, degradation, brutality and death that he experienced during the war is strikingly detailed and intense. It’s harrowing to read.

The third section returns to the author’s own memories and discoveries that he has made about his grandfather’s past by following in his grandfather’s footsteps and visiting some of the sites from Urbain’s memories to reflect on the importance of these places in his grandfather’s life and to explore how the passage of time has changed them.

The title – War and Turpentine – two things that don’t seem to go together is actually a very accurate representation of the contradictions that defined Urbain’s life. His dream of becoming a painter was derailed by the lasting horror of the Great War. This contradiction between horror and beauty continued to be a recurring theme in the novel. Overall, I thought that through the recollections of his grandfather, an ordinary man of who lived in that period, the author has created a beautiful and moving portrait of a generation, whose lives were shaped, broken and haunted by the First World War.

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