by Mathias Énard
Compass is about many things, not all of them obvious, but Orientalism is perhaps its defining theme. The novel, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has just been shortlisted for the Man Booker International, narrates the meandering nighttime perceptions of Franz Ritter, an Austrian music scholar whose specialty is tracing how Western composers have been influenced by their Middle Eastern compatriots. Ritter keeps a compass pointing to the east, in honour of Beethoven who apparently owned a similar gizmo. If this clue is too subtle, the ailing Franz lusts dreamily after Sarah, whose academic interests bisect neatly with his own. The chapters essentially describe a sleepless Viennese night. First, we get a prologue so French it should wear a beret. Titled “On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient”, it drifts from opium smoking to profundities such as “Existence is a painful reflection”. Within these narrow parameters, Franz’s mind wanders between Sarah, his own largely ignored thesis, and travels through Syria, Turkey and Iran, among other countries. Compass is unlikely to inspire a video game but it will provoke plenty of thoughts, about history and the state of the world today.