Posts Tagged ‘Adrift’

Amin Maalouf: Balthasar’s Odyssey

December 26, 2021

     I’ve just re-read another of my favourites by Amin Maalouf, and find myself wondering what it is I find so captivating in his writing. The socio-cultural and historical essays such as Adrift I find very interesting not just because his analyses largely concur with mine, but because they are far-sighted and take me out of my limited Western perspective and comfort-zone. With the novels, it’s different, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is to do with the nature of storytelling being different in other cultures; I’m not widely-enough read to judge at the moment.

I cam to Maalouf via Samarcand, then Leo the African, then this book. The settings are exotic, in the sense of a historical past, either in what we would have called mediaeval times, or else the Renaissance, and located in the Middle East, and the European parts of the Muslim world at those times. There are also usually characters from all three religions of the book, living together reasonably peacefully and tolerantly (within the parameters of their age), so perhaps Maalouf is looking back to a golden age in more ways than one, compared with our times. There is obviously an overlap – wishful thinking? – with his non-fiction.

This story is set in 1665-66, with overtones of the year of the Beast (666) and end times; there is a mysterious book which comes into and leaves the possession of the narrator repeatedly, which allegedly tells how to learn the mysterious hundredth name of God (according to the Qur’an there are ninety-nine) which will bring about transformation. Our narrator ranges the known world in obsessive pursuit of the book, which brings calamity in its wake; even in his possession and open in front of him, somehow it is impossible to read more than a few pages…

Maalouf’s characters in many of his novels are seekers, wanderers about the world; they are thinkers and they meet other kindred spirits on their travels and discuss religious and philosophical notions. Not only questing after truth, they are also on personal journeys of self-discovery and seeking happiness. Balthasar is 40 – significant, perhaps – seeking a book, love, a purpose for his future. I think this is one of the aspects of this novel, and Maalouf’s writing in general that appeals to me: there are real ideas and insights woven into the fiction.

There’s also something in the style of the story-telling: it’s first person, done through dated journal entries, so at one level there’s the potential for it to be fairly dull in terms of no suspense or changing viewpoints. But it’s not, it works in the sense that it’s the mind of his character that Maalouf wants us to know, and there is suspense via the gaps between the journal entries, and the unexpected changes of location of our narrator. It’s definitely not a Western novel as most of us might understand the term. In a way, it’s how some of the earliest English fiction was crafted; perhaps Maalouf is deliberately imitating something like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year?

Finally, there’s a kind of meta-fiction here too, a book about a book or books, such as we find in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in various of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or in Gilbert Sinoué’s Livre de Saphir. There are books containing hidden or arcane knowledge for those who care to look or seek it, although perhaps not with the obsessiveness of the hero of this novel.

There’s a lot here. It’s not the average, evanescent stuff of much contemporary fiction – this is the third time I’ve read and enjoyed the novel, and it’s gone back on my shelves for the future.

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