To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors whose books I can read only when the timing is right. Years before, I abandoned Mrs Dalloway twice, only to try it much later when I was on a sabbatical. I loved the novel on my third attempt.

Something similar happened with To the Lighthouse. In a previous attempt I had not made much headway, but the current lockdown was the perfect opportunity to give this novel another go. And I loved this one too.

Despite her daunting reputation as a novelist and the perception that her novels are difficult to read, I ultimately found both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse pretty accessible.

To the Lighthouse is essentially an impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives.

When the book begins Mrs Ramsay’s youngest son, James, who is around eight years old asks Mrs Ramsay whether they can visit the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay believes the weather will be fine to make this excursion, but Mr Ramsay turns out to be a damp squib. He dashes their hopes stating that inclement weather is bound to make any such trip impossible.

This exchange at the beginning brings to the fore the tensions within the Ramsay family. Young James harbours resentment towards his father (which continues ten years later), and Mrs Ramsay is inwardly unhappy that her husband should be a spoilsport.

This brings us to one of the themes of the novel – the portrayal of a marriage, in this case the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Ramsay.

Mr Ramsay is quick tempered, and worries whether his body of work (he writes philosophy books) will stand up even after his death. He is insecure about being remembered by posterity and constantly craves for reassurances regarding his worth. For this, he more often than not turns towards his wife. To his kids, Mr Ramsay comes across as a tyrant.

Mrs Ramsay is described as a beautiful woman. In a way, she is the life of the assembly of people at their holiday home, the axis around which everything revolves. She is an intelligent woman but resigned to playing second fiddle to her husband, assuaging his moods, which often puts a strain on her. When it comes to their family life, however, she plays a central role, managing her eight children, being on top of household duties and taking care of her guests.

They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.

It doesn’t mean the marriage is not successful because husband and wife love each other. Yet there are tensions between the two and the individual viewpoints of both Mr and Mrs Ramsay are presented to the reader.

And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? He said. It is not sensible. For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was. Less exposed to human worries-perhaps that was it. He had always his work to fall back on. Not that she herself was ‘pessimistic’, as he accused her of being. Only she thought life-and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes, her fifty years.

Providing another perspective on their marriage outside of the family is Lily Briscoe – a young, aspiring painter who is also one of the guests at the holiday home.

Lily is very unsure of her talent as she frets over the form and composition of her paintings. It doesn’t help that Tansley, another guest, quips about how women ‘can neither paint nor write’.

Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it?

When she is not looking after her children, Mrs Ramsay spends her energy match-making and thinking about possible alliances. Mrs Ramsay knows she is beautiful but is also aware that her charms are not for everyone.

She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved….it injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded, coming as it did on top of her discontent with her husband; the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question….

The novel also explores the power dynamics between Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mrs Ramsay takes it upon herself to pair up people and in this she attempts to team up Lily with Mr William Bankes – a much older man. Lily does not fall for it and also on her part ponders on the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ramsay and the why the latter doesn’t stand up to him a bit.

There must have been people who disliked her very much, Lily thought – people who thought her too sure, too drastic. Also, her beauty offended people probably. How monotonous, they would say, and the same always! They preferred another type – the dark, the vivacious. Then she was weak with her husband. She let him make those scenes.

To the Lighthouse is made up of three sections. The first section – ‘The Window’ – is the longest; the focal point of which is the time spent by the family and their friends at their holiday home before the start of the Second World War as highlighted above. It ends with a large dinner party organized by Mrs Ramsay – where the various dynamics between the characters come into play – and the announcement of a wedding.  

We then move on to the second section – ‘Time Passes’ – which is peppered with some of the most poetic and beautifully written passages in the novel. The years roll by, the war rumbles on and the Ramsay holiday home gradually sinks into decay. Important developments in the Ramsay family are conveyed in various chapters in parenthesis.

In the third section – ‘The Lighthouse’ – ten years later, the Ramsay family are back on the island again and this time make that much delayed trip to the lighthouse.

One of the questions that many of the key characters ponder over is – What is the meaning of it all?

What does one live for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable?

Mr Ramsay does not want his fame to diminish even after his death. Lily Briscoe does not aspire towards such lofty ideals, nor does she appear to have much ambition of being a great painter, although she does brood over the details of the creative processes of painting.

What is the meaning of life? That was all-simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

In terms of plot, there’s not much that happens in To the Lighthouse, the drama is all internal. Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, whether she is describing the Ramsay marriage, the creative energy of Lily Briscoe and the painting process, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. The novel is a lovely portrayal of family life, of the love between a mother and her children and the accumulation of moments which leave an indelible mark on the mind.


The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments – Ann Quin

I have somehow always confused Ann Quin and Anna Kavan. They are obviously different writers and yet there are similarities. Both have experimental styles of writing. And both have had a brush with mental illness.

Since I had already read, loved and reviewed Anna Kavan’s Ice earlier this year, it only felt right to explore Ann Quin.

But rather than begin with her famous novel Berg, I decided to first tread the waters by dipping into this story collection recently released by the publisher And Other Stories.

The Unmapped Country
And Other Stories Edition

The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments, is difficult book to write about, simply because of Ann Quin’s experimental and sometimes challenging writing.

However, for those looking at a Quin appetizer before launching into the main course that is her novels, this is the best and the only place to start. As the whole title suggests, this is a collection of 14 pieces, stories, fragments; selected and edited by Jennifer Hodgson. They venture into a variety of genres – traditional narratives, horror, science fiction, stream of consciousness…

It begins with ‘Leaving School – XI.’ This is a piece of memoir writing where the narrator, which could very well be Quin herself, talks on a wide range of subjects. Here’s how it opens…

Bound by perverse securities in a convent, RC Brighton for eight years. Taking that long to get over. The Holy Ghost. The Trinity. The Reverend Mother. I was not a Catholic. I was sent to a convent to be brought up ‘a lady’. To say gate and not gaite – the Sussex accent I had picked up from a village school in my belly-rubbing days had to be eliminated by How Now Brown Cow, if I wanted to make my way in the world. According to Mother.

Besides her life in the convent, the narrator goes on describe her attempts first to try her hand at theatre, and the various dead end jobs she takes during the day – in a solicitor’s office in Brighton, as a secretary in a publishing firm in London, so that she can draft her novels in the evenings.  But it was not always easy.

In winter I lived on potatoes, saved on the gas fire by going to bed, hotwaterbottled, typerwriter balanced on knees. I rarely went out in the evenings, but was a voyeur, in the sense of watching from my window the prostitutes…

And then she describes her trysts with mental illness…

I decided to climb out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.

We then have a grotesque but compelling piece called ‘Nude and Seascape’ where a man tries to create an artistic still life composition with a woman’s dead body on the beach. Not content with how things are panning out, he resorts to a bizarre tactic.

Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time.

This is followed by one of my favourites in this collection – ‘The Double Room’. This is a delicious tale about a pretty unremarkable couple. It is a tale of an extra marital affair and the woman is contemplating whether she should take up her married partner’s offer of going away for the weekend to the seaside.

Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time.

It is not exactly a match made in heaven. Both are quite nervous and tetchy and unable to consummate their relationship. The dreary seaside only heightens the woman’s sense of isolation.

‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’, is a story that focuses on a child’s mind, her enchanting perceptions of an adult world combined with an unflinching depiction of old age.

‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’ and ‘Ghostworm’ are stream of consciousness, experimental tales. In both, one is not really sure what is going on. Both are tales of lovers, that much seems clear. And yet, they are fascinating because of the impressions formed, and the sense of going through an experience. It’s all surreal as landscapes, words, sensual feelings swirl and merge to form an abstract painting.

Here are some tasters…

This is from ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’…

Later when they touched, it was as if someone else touched her. She gave herself up to this. From out of the past, with lovers she would not see again, be committed to. It was new. The lovemaking. Slower. Sensual. Longer. Backwards. Forwards. Sideways. She no longer placed herself over cliff edges.

‘Ghostworm’ opens thus…

I’ll take the ashes to his wife tomorrow. Idiot. No not again – go away. Never. Get off my back. You’re obsessed.

Clearly, there are two voices here. And here’s an image from the same piece…

Wind blew the curtains sideways. Lifted the Indian rug suspended from wooden beams. Wind across her feet. Face. Across his. As they lay on the mesa between rocks. The desert under his arms. She watched rain in the distance. Curtains of rain moving slowly. Wanting to watch that.

We then have ‘Motherlogue’, which is an interesting narrative because it is in the form of a telephone call and we only hear one side of the conversation – the mother talking to her daughter. And yet in this we get a glimpse of the daughter’s life as well.

And then there is the title story, ‘The Unmapped Country’, which was unfinished, but a dazzling piece told from the point of a view of a woman feeling trapped in a mental asylum.

She suddenly felt claustrophobic, the smell of women penetrated her nose, mouth, ears and eyes. She went again into the dormitory, where it was dark, silent. She lay down and slid into black velvet. A sea of velvet that tossed her gently, and somewhere above her the sound of ice breaking.

And then were a few lines in the story, which conjured up images of Anna Kavan’s Ice….

Wind ruffled snow. The north wind bringing the sound of ice. She saw again three gulls circle the ship’s mast, and heard the movement of wood against ice: saw the icebergs like fallen statues move slowly past. Points of light from islands pinpricked the disturbed darkness.

There are a couple of pieces I thought were pretty uninspiring. One was in the form of a manifesto, on behalf of one of Quin’s boyfriends Billy Apple. And the other is a tale in the form of cut-ups called ‘Living in the ‘Present’, which I couldn’t really get into.

But otherwise, this is a superb collection and gives a rich flavour of Quin’s innovative writing. There is no doubt that Ann Quin’s work is an acquired taste. But if you develop a liking, the journey is worth it.

And end up like me – yes perhaps it would be an experience for you that’s what you want EXPERIENCE in caps period. To live beyond myself. Such a craving.


Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press Boxed Set, Folio Society, Pushkin Vertigo, New Directions Hardback

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Folio Society, Pushkin Japanese Novella Series, Feminist Press

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Virago Modern Classics, Orion Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, Folio Society)

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Canongate Books, Shakespeare & Company Paris, Picador

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press, Folio Society, Folio Society again, Peirene Press (‘Female Voice: Inner Realities’ Series Book One)

A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Oneworld Publications, Folio Society, Picador E-Book, Granta Hardback, Fitzcarraldo

My Top 12 Books of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to look back on the books that I greatly enjoyed during the year, and select the best among those.

I had a tough time whittling the list down to 12, but I absolutely loved the ones that I did end up selecting.

Three of these, I had already reviewed on my blog earlier, the rest I had not. For the ones I had reviewed earlier, I have given a brief snapshot and you can click on the book’s title, which will take you to the detailed review.

Top 12 of 2017


Without much ado, here is my list of my Top 12 books for 2017, and why I thought they were special…

A True Novel – Minae Mizumura   

A True Novel
Other Press Boxed Set

This novel was billed as a Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, and that greatly piqued my interest. I had loved Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it in college, and its tale about a brooding hero, and his tempestuous heroine captured my imagination.

But it would be a disservice to judge A True Novel solely by this comparison, because the novel is strong enough to stand on its own.  Read more

Compass – Mathias Enard (tr. Charlotte Mandell)

Easily one of the most exhilarating and immersive reads for me this year.

Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.

This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.

Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of passing of the time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion…

New Directions Hardback Edition

That’s the plot in a nutshell. What makes this novel riveting and accomplished though is the high level of erudition displayed by Enard. It’s also a novel very relevant to our times; times when there is a growing level of intolerance towards different religions, cultures and peoples.

Increasing incidents of terrorism has widened the gulf between the East (largely Muslim) and the West. Certainly, the East is not as developed as the West. But there is this perception that the East is culturally deficient too. It’s the latter view that Enard challenges in this novel.

Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and a lot of Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt a lot from each other.

Enard also talks about the imaginary construct ‘the Orient’. While the Orient is perceived to be the East, it remains an ever shifting term because where really would you draw the line? Is Vienna the westernmost city and thereby a gateway to the East? Or would that be Turkey?  Culturally speaking, the boundaries are quite blurred.

The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.

A lot of western musicians, academics, writers, explorers and archeologists are discussed. Cultural references abound. Agatha Christie, Don Quixote, Balzac, Beethoven, Sadegh Hedayat, Chopin, Kafka, Proust, Thomas Mann, Wagner form just one slice of a large cultural cake. The point being that many of them were Orientalists and the feel of the East and ‘otherness’ was incorporated in some of their works. Lawrence of Arabia, 1001 Nights, Romeo & Juliet, Layla & Majnun are also vividly discussed.

Compass Fitzgarraldo
Fitzcarraldo Editions

The cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra in Syria, before the current civil war, have been beautifully described. They are ancient and the traveller in me was mesmerized by this sense of history. Visiting these cities would have been a tremendous experience only that it is now impossible with so much destruction and the war showing little signs of abating.

For someone arriving from Damascus, Aleppo was exotic; more cosmopolitan perhaps, closer to Istanbul; Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, not far from Antioch, homeland of saints and crusaders, between the Orontes and Euphrates rivers. Aleppo was a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens, built around the train station, the southern branch of the Baghdad Bahn, which put Aleppo a week away from Vienna via Istanbul and Konya as early as January 1913…

Istanbul in Turkey and Tehran in Iran are wonderfully evoked too. Particularly, there are passages on the Iranian revolution in 1979, which make for fascinating reading. In the late 70s, inflation had become a big problem in Iran. Ordered to fight it, the Prime Minister Jamshid Amouzegar resorted to a draconian measure – he cut off public investments, stopped large building projects and heavily fined profiteers. In two years, inflation reduced only to be replaced by massive unemployment as economic activity halted. This resulted in the Iranian public turning against the then ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, who by then had no real support in 1978. Even those who had gotten rich thanks to him and benefitted from free education turned against him.

Enard also touches upon the topic of global jihad. It is widely believed that global jihad was instigated by radical Islamists and gained prominence since the 9/11 attacks in the US. The interesting fact is that the call for global jihad was made much earlier during the First World War and that too by Germany! Germany had set up a little known Prisoner of War camp called ‘Half Moon Camp’ just outside Berlin, which was dedicated to turning Allied Muslim soldiers into jihad warriors. The idea being that they rise against their employers notably Britain, France and Russia. This move backfired.

That’s not all. Interwoven through this rich fabric of musings on art and culture, is Ritter’s longing for the unattainable, fiery and independent Sarah. Ritter has his chances and he reflects on missed opportunities and on the course the relationship would have taken had he displayed more courage.

If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff everything would have been different…

At 445 pages (in the New Directions edition; the first picture), Compass is a rich and multi-layered novel and I have only managed to cover some of the themes here.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style as the action takes place inside Ritter’s head. The narration is not linear as Ritter goes back and forth through time and history when reminiscing. But it is not a difficult read. The chapter headings are in the form of time stamps as the hours in the night progress. The language is strong, hypnotic and lucid and the credit here goes to the translator Charlotte Mandell as much as it goes to the author.

In a fascinating interview on the Man Booker Prize website, Mandell touched upon what she liked about Compass.

She says, “I like the rhythm of the prose, the propulsive quality of the narrative, the sort of melancholy, Viennese tone of the narrator’s voice. For me, plot and character aren’t as alluring as language: if a sentence is well-constructed and the language is engaging, I am immediately seduced.”

Enard knows his subject matter too. He has spent long periods of time in the Middle East and is a professor of Arabic and Persian in the University of Barcelona. His knowledge and passion for the East, not surprisingly, is very apparent in this novel.

Is it important to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures if we humans want to learn and grow and widen our minds? Or should we bandy around the ‘nationalist’ theme and give in to the clamour to close borders? Enard gives a big thumbs up to the former.

Compass then is a sweeping and gorgeous read. An ode to Otherness. Erudition personified. A literary feast not to be missed.