Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)


“Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.”

But that is exactly what Franz Ritter is doing one night; as he struggles to find sleep, he is reviewing his life, his time with Sarah and the joy he felt in her presence.

They met at a conference held at Hainfield Castle in Vienna, and have since taken strolls or eaten meals in Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran and Aleppo.

“I have to admit that, even though I am not what could be called a hedonist or a gourmet, the setting, the food and the excellent Lebanese wine they served there (and especially the company of Sarah, whose beauty was brought out by the Ottoman cortile, the jewels, the cloth, the wooden mashraybiyas) have fixed that evening in my memory; we were princes, princes from the West whom the Orient was welcoming and treating as such, with refinement, obsequiousness, suave languor, and all of this, conforming to the image our youth had constructed of the Oriental myth, gave us the impression of finally living in the lost lands of the Thousand and One Nights, which has reappeared for us alone: no foreigner, in that early spring, to spoil its exclusivity; our fellow diners were a rich family from Aleppo celebrating a patriarch’s birthday, whose women, bejeweled, wearing white lace blouses with strict black wool vests, kept smiling at Sarah.”

You can see how the sentences, which are often a full paragraph in length, contribute to the dream-like quality, while at the same time giving us a perfect sense of place.

And because Franz is a musicologist as well as narrator and dreamer, we are introduced to music and composers such as we may have been previously unaware. Take Felicien David, for instance, who became famous on December 8, 1844, after the premiere of Le Desert which is a symphony in three parts based on the composer’s memories of a journey to the Orient. (What a beautiful piece of music it is.)

“…memory is the only thing I don’t lack, the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body…”

His recounting of a night he slept with Sarah seems to embody not only their relationship, but the love-hate relationship of the East and the West. Perhaps we may admire each other, even partake in the glorious offerings each has to offer, but can we truly ever understand each other? Can we truly be united? It seems an invisible line divides us, one that try as we might, can never be fully dissolved.

11:10 p.m.

11:58 p.m.

12:55 a.m.

We spend a restless night with Franz, tossing and turning, unable to find the peace required to rest.  Each “chapter” is instead listed with a time stamp, recording the hour and the intricacies of his thoughts. They are tangled and knotted; he tries to sort out his memories, his relationships, his past which is inextricable from music and stories and historical figures.

My fellow shadow jury members are well taken with this book, and for its sense of beauty, its important themes, and well wrought sentences, I can concur. It certainly has more power than the trite Mirror, Shoulders, Signal, or cumbersome Explosion Chronicles.  I fully expect Compass to be on the jury’s short list, as well as the official short list which will be announced April 20.

Find other reviews at Tony’s Reading List, The Bookbinder’s Daughter, David’s Book World, and Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Compass by Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on March 22, 2017
480 pages

24 thoughts on “Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)”

  1. Some of the music was unfamiliar to me, and I had to look it up on Google; the piece Le Desert is gorgeous and well worth listening to. It added a whole other dimension to this book, making it a very well rounded work for me. Let me put a link to that piece in my post right now…


    1. What a world indeed. I find it in my teaching world, first, when I began with chalk and now teach with a Smartboard. I am of a mixed opinion. The world of technology is wonderful, but as I delve into Tolstoy again, I wonder how far we’ve come. Relating to your comment, though, it is pretty cool to be able to listen to a song four seconds after one has read about it.


    1. But you have read Bricks and Mortar which I hope to finish before our “due date”. 🙂

      This is a beautiful book, which I read slowly and contemplatively, unlike any other on the list. It is almost stream of consciousness in style, so dream-like and other worldly to me.

      Enard’s knowledge of music and writers and history is immense!


  2. Your comment about the music has triggered a little request from me to the inventors out there…
    The first time I read Ulysses I didn’t know any of the Irish folk songs that are sprinkled through the text everywhere. But the last time I read it (in 2010) I had Google by my side and of course the music enriched the experience considerably (as it was intended to do). I remember commenting somewhere in one of my blog posts about it that someone should bring out a set of CDs for us to listen to as we read each chapter. But now I want something else…
    Seven years ago I couldn’t have envisaged this: books that deserve to have their music known to the reader could have a little microchip in them (in the actual book) so that they could connect by Wi-Fi to whatever sound system you have, and the music would automatically play at the right part in the book! I guess you’d have to have an option to turn it off in case the 1812 Overture woke up a bedtime reading partner or interfered with the Fletcher Henderson in *his* book.
    (Of course I know that Mr Kindle and Co will say that they can do this now in the way that you can automatically look up a dictionary word in the text, but no, I am talking about *real* books.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds almost like a James Bond gadget, what you’re describing by here, Lisa. But, short of having my iPhone by my side as I read, to look up places and music and unfamiliar names, I’m not sure how to get more technological. Of course, I never imagined owning three e-readers, either, and now I read from paper, my kindle, my nook, and my iPad.

      I surely would love something to pull up music when I read Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music!


        1. I know you and Stu were not pleased that he’d been neglected in leaving Zone off the list. It must be an extra joy to see Compass here this year, and between you and me, I’m betting it’s on the official short list as well. If it doesn’t take all. It’s quite ethereal (to me) and that effect stays with me a long time.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, I also expect this to be on the shortlist (though it’s worth remembering that Zone did not even get long-listed).
    I love Lisa’s idea but I suspect this is more the province of electronic books. In fact I think e-books went wrong when publishers focused on cheapness rather than enhancement (or making out of print books available).


    1. I agree, it seems that e-books could be much more than they are. What a missed opportunity to make something great instead of something simply new and therefore “advanced”.


    1. Yes, I have downloaded it on spotify; what a wonderful addition to the novel! I also downloaded the playlist for Murakami’s book Absolutely on Music. They almost “should” come with a cd. 😉


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