Ideas & Events

Orientation and the Orient

About Compass, by Mathieu Esnard, Actes Sud, 2015 (In English, Fitzcarraldo Editions,2017)

I recently came across a book for which I didn’t understand the title till I had finished it. Compass, by Mathieu Esnard, the 2015 Goncourt prize, appeared unwieldy to me at first, and then I was captivated by the cogitations of an insomniac over one long night. You follow the mental pathways that go from a personal story to stories of travellers and intellectuals who had been engaged in the East. Mathieu Esnard shows us our fascination for the East, a quest for the East, both far and near, as well as within us. Note how the Orientation and the Orient words « orient » and « oriental » refer to different parts of the world depending on who’s speaking: from North Africa for the French to Asia for the English-speaking world.


We accompany Franz Ritter, a researcher specialized in Middle-Eastern music, along a sleepless night and his teeming, uneasy memories, where his life and research intermingle. The book deals with dreams, a never-ending love story, otherness, the filters of exoticism, transforming others into objects and unexpected encounters.

This dense book is moving and enthralling. It brings us another way of linking the West and the East. It sheds a different light on what Amin Maalouf’s book « The Crusades through Arab Eyes » explained, examining the question our ethnocentricity in relation to the East. This time, with Mathieu Esnard, we explore the East as that share of strangeness that is at the core of each of us.