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Man Booker International Short List 2017: Compass by Mathias Enard


With just hours to go (well maybe a whole day) I have finished the last book on the Man Booker International Short List 2017. This one was a struggle, not least because it is the longest book on the short list. Read on to find out more.

The Compass by Mathias Enard
Translanted by Charlotte Mandell
Published in: 2017
Reviewed by: Book Worm
Find it/buy here: The Compass

This ARC was provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions (via Netgalley) in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. At the center of these memories is his elusive love, Sarah, a fiercely intelligent French scholar caught in the intricate tension between Europe and the Middle East.

With exhilarating prose and sweeping erudition, Mathias Énard pulls astonishing elements from disparate sources—nineteenth-century composers and esoteric orientalists, Balzac and Agatha Christie—and binds them together in a most magical way.

Book Worm’s Thoughts and Scores: In our normal rating system this would have been a 3 star read for me. Like Judas, this book suffers from being too clever and that is why I only scored it 1 for overall enjoyment. Essentially this is a series of philosophical essays/ arguments about the effect of the West on the East and vice versa. The reader is treated (or not) to lectures about various well known figures in the arts and how the Orient shaped their contributions to various branches of the arts. It also showed the historical influences of each culture on the other. This would have been interesting if it hadn’t been presented in such a dry and dull way.

The events of the book take place over the course of one night as insomniac Franz Ritter looks back over key moments of his life and his missed chances to find love with the woman who haunts his dreaming and waking moments Sarah.

I have given this book low scores on character development and plot development because essentially nothing happens. We don’t actually see any character development, just a series of remembered events that don’t really reveal much about the people involved in them. Originality also scored low because the story is essentially one man’s memories and I didn’t find anything earth shattering or new in either the concept or the presentation.

So after all that criticism, onto the bits I actually did enjoy. This is a solidly written book and when we are actually given an insight into the thoughts of Franz the person (as opposed to Franz the musicologist) there are some touching and some funny moments. When the author looks at the modern day Orient and the situation with regard to terrorism and ill feeling against the West he provides us with well thought out and insightful information.

“a doctor who talks to you about getting enough rest every visit but is incapable of making you go to sleep does not deserve the title of doctor. I have to admit, in his defence, that I’ve never taken any of the rubbish he’s prescribed for me. But a doctor who can’t guess that you aren’t going to take the rubbish he prescribes for you is not a good doctor, that’s why I should switch.”

“There is nothing more beautiful than seeing technology in the service of kitsch.”

“this farcical and macabre version of Islam with the black flag. It’s such a European story, in the end. European victims, killers with London accents. A new and violent radical Islam, born in Europe and the United States from western bombs, and the only victims that count when it comes down to it are Europeans. Poor Syrians. Their fate interests our media much less, in reality.”

“we needed more than ever to rid ourselves of this absurd idea of the absolute otherness of Islam and to admit not only the terrifying violence of colonialism, but also all that Europe owed to the Orient – the impossibility of separating them from each other, the necessity of changing our perspective.”

Here are my ratings for the various categories:

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 12/20

Want to try it for yourself? You can purchase your copy here: The Compass

Ranked list of shortlist books:
1. Fever Dreams (18.5/20)
2. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (17/20)
3. A Horse Walks into a Bar (15/20)
4. Judas (13.5/20)
5. The Unseen (13/20)
6. The Compass (12/20)

We want to hear from you. Have read this book? What did you think? Should it win the prize?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tracy S #

    I’m glad I didn’t try too hard to find this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 13, 2017
  2. I’m reading Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace at the moment, which is set in Mecca. I’m just over halfway through, and though it hasn’t raised the issue of terrorism or fundamentalism, it has made me think about how ‘other’ Islam is considered in the west, partly because that’s how it’s portrayed in the media, partly because there has been an increase in more conservative forms of Islam encouraging separation of communities. That fits with the final two quotes above. It’s a shame that The Compass comes across as a dry read, because the subject matter sounds interesting.

    This made me roll my eyes in mock despair at the self-indulgence of educated middle-aged men:
    The events of the book take place over the course of one night as insomniac Franz Ritter looks back over key moments of his life and his missed chances to find love with the woman who haunts his dreaming and waking moments Sarah.

    I can imagine how dry this book must be on the basis of that synopsis, BW!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 13, 2017

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