In Which The Shadow Jury for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 Revisits Mathias Enard’s Compass and Arrives At A Decision

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“We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapor that engendered it, nor of the atoms that still compose it but that, soon, will serve other molecules, other bodies, the clouds weighing heavy over Vienna tonight: over whose nape will this water stream, against what skin, on what pavement, toward what river, and this indistinct face on the glass is mine only for an instant, one of the millions of possible configurations of illusion – look, Herr Gruber is walking his dog despite the drizzle, he’s wearing a green hat and his eternal raincoat; he avoids getting splashed by the cars by making ridiculous little leaps on the pavement: the mutt thinks he wants to play, so it leaps towards its master and gets a good clout the second it places its dirty paw on Herr Gruber’s trench coat, despite everything he manages to reach the road to cross, his silhouette is lengthened by the streetlights, a blackened pool in the midst of the sea of shadows of the tall trees ripped apart by the headlights along the Porzellangasse, and Herr Gruber seems to think twice about plunging into the Alsergrund night, as I do about leaving my contemplation of the drops of water, the thermometer, and the rhythym of the trams descending towards the Schottentor.”

It’s not exactly the kind of first sentence you could easily memorize, as people have done with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

But, it is indicative of the style of this book. Mathias Enard’s prose is mesmerizing, catching us up in a mood, covering us with atmosphere, and yet not wavering one instant from brilliance.

I thought this book might be too esoteric to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017. It wasn’t, for me, an easy read. Nor is there a specific plot on which I can center my thoughts. For those reasons, I chose The Unseen as my personal favorite for the Prize. In fact, The Unseen received four votes from the Shadow Jury panel.

However, another four votes went to Compass, resulting in some heavy consulting between Tony and Stu, who point out that Compass won by .1 of a point in the first round of voting. All of us concur; it is a worthy book to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017.

We shall see what the official judges say is the winner. They have a hard job of it, I think, deciding between the likes of Compass, Fever Dream, Judas and The Unseen. Each book stands out for its power and pertinence; I do not envy them their job. But, the Shadow Jury has declared our choice in Compass, and we eagerly await the official judges’ verdict.

 

(While one waits, might I point out that Spotify has a playlist for Compass? It is a lovely accompaniment to listen to while reading.)

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

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“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