Western melancholy meets Eastern melody by the Danube

THE city of Vienna lies at the heart of this difficult but rewarding novel which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

Vienna marks the centrepiece where all other locations spin around in Mathias Enard's story of regret.

Compass
Mathias Enard
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £14.99

The central character, Franz Ritter, is an insomniac musicologist and the story is narrated over the period of a single sleepless night.

Ritter is ill and his mind wanders back over his life and, in particular, focuses on the lost love of his life Sarah, a French scholar of the orient.

The nature of the story means that it doesn’t follow a traditional plotline but consists of dreamlike memories that criss-cross the Middle East.

Vienna was once at the political centre of Europe and as such it has been an important meeting-point between the east and the west of that continent.

There are echoes of this past throughout the novel and the city itself becomes a “gateway to the Orient” in fictional terms at least.

Through the figure of Sarah the book explores Western perceptions of the east and in doing so becomes a search for otherness not only in the world, but also on a more personal level.

Sarah represents this almost unattainable otherness herself as the narrator rakes over lost opportunities of love, she becomes ever more distant and exalted.

The compass of the title refers to the use of a compass on Muslim prayer mats to enable the worshipper to find the direction of Mecca.

The narrator also describes a replica compass of one owned by Beethoven which points to the east instead of to the north.

The great River Danube also winds its way symbolically through the novel.

The river cuts through central Europe flowing south-east from Germany into Eastern Europe before flowing out into the Black Sea.

Several times the narrator mentions Claudio Magris’ now classic travel book, Danube, as the river itself seems to represent a journey between two opposing ideologies.

The poet Friedrich Hlderlin called it the “river of melody” and the song of the river and the music of the east with its influence on Western music shows how much the two flow into each other.

Franz’s memories spill back onto other great cities of the Orient including Istanbul, Tehran, Damascus and, most notably, Aleppo.

The destruction of Syria offers an implied backdrop to the story and the awful current situation of Aleppo contrasts with a visit there before the Civil War broke out.

The city which now stands in ruins was then “a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens,” it was more exotic than Damascus, “closer to Istanbul”.

While this is not a political novel it is clearly an attempt to show how such destruction is the result of a mutual suspicion between east and west.

Franz’s love life is hindered by an inability or reluctance to reach out to the object of his affections, it is this distance which sets people and places at odds with each other and creates unnecessary tensions.

Mathias Enard is a respected student of the Orient and his knowledge shines through in this fascinating book.

His previous work explores violent conflict in the 20th century and also the Arab Spring amongst other themes.

This novel, Compass, won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015 and it is beautifully translated by Charlotte Mandell.

It is a powerful and complex study of a man and a time caught between possibilities, of a life tinged with regrets.

 

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