Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.
Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;
“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)
Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.
A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.
I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)
Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.
You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)
This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.
We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)
Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);
It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)
The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.
This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.
Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)