Compass by Mathias Enard
On a single sleepless night in Vienna, musicologist Franz Ritter revisits moments from a life spent studying and exploring the Middle East, winding through memories and half-dreams of Aleppo, Damascus, and Tehran, always circling back to his love of Sarah, a French scholar who is even more intelligent than our narrator, and rarely pausing for anything so pedestrian as a full stop. In 2015 this novel won France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt and has just been shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize: it is a loose outing in the stream of consciousness tradition, following in the footsteps of Proust and Joyce and so on.
Our narrator is an insomniac, but these are not your average night thoughts. Dr Ritter’s stream of consciousness is untroubled by the tributaries that deal with shopping lists, bills and whether the cat’s been fed. Instead, we delve deep into Orientalism, the relationship between East and West, the interlinking and interdependence of cultures, the idea that there is otherness in us all. We come across academics, musicians, artists and authors, and we run through many pages that would be better suited to a lengthy essay.
There are moments of humour and self-deprecation, which come as a relief. Charlotte Mandell’s translation is impeccable. But dispensing with plot and dialogue turns the novel down to a slow burn of showy intelligence, at risk of sending its readers into the deep, blissful sleep of which Dr Ritter is so deprived.