We now know that Amin Maalouf did not win the Man Booker International Prize for 2011. (It went to Philip Roth – more on that later.) But seeing him on the short-list prompted a friend to recommend his books to me – to my eternal gratitude. I can’t yet speak for the rest of his work, but Balthasar’s Odyssey is delightful.
Amin Maalouf was born of Catholic parents in Lebanon, which he left during the civil war in 1979; he now lives in Paris. He writes in French; Balthasar’s Odyssey (2000) was translated by Barbara Bray in 2002.
It is the year 1665. Balthasar, whose family was originally from Genoa, lives in Gibelet, known in modern Lebanonas Jbneil, or Byblos. Then it was part of the rambling Ottoman Empire. Like his father before him, Balthasar is a dealer in books and curios. Like others, he has heard rumours that 1666 will be the Year of the Beast, with the coming of the Apocalypse and the end of the world. He has also heard of a book by an Arabic scholar that purportedly contains information that might save the person who learns of it. The Koran contains the ninety-nine names of God; this book, The Unveiling of the Hidden Name, is said to reveal the as yet unknown hundredth name, knowledge of which will ensure salvation. By strange chance, this volume comes into Balthasar’s keeping, but before he can read it, it passes into other hands. Why did he let it go? In pursuit of the book, he sets out on what becomes his odyssey.
The story is in four parts, each contained in a notebook in which Balthasar records the events of his journey and his thoughts about it. ‘I write’, he says, ‘to record events, to explain myself, or to clear my mind in the same way as one clears one’s throat, or so as not to forget, or even just because I promised myself I would.’ The word ‘picaresque’ – a hangover from a long ago English 101 course – came into my mind when reading Balthasar’s story; it is episodic, moving on not only from place to place, but from one set of characters to another. While he often gives their points of view, the story is essentially his version of events. He frequently cannot know how incidents he witnessed, or took part in, turned out; much consequently is left open ended.
The single narrator strategy can be a risky one, but in Balthasar, Maalouf has created a likeable character who has no difficulty in holding my interest. He tries to be honourable, even in the face of lies and trickery, but is drawn into deceit himself, and his good intentions seem to have a way of backfiring. He tries to be rational in face of superstition, but can’t help seeing signs and portents of doom around him. Is it really likely that God has chosen him, a not particularly devout Catholic, to be the person to whom the hundredth name will be revealed? Is it fate, or his own desires that drive him? He is full of earnest self doubt. ‘What is the good of travelling all over the world just to see what is inside me already?’ he asks himself. ‘I record in my notebook’, he says, ‘the various decrees of fate, interspersed with my own passionate shilly-shallyings’. ‘Perhaps’, he decides, ‘the honour of mortals resides in their inconsistency.’ By the end, he has concluded that ‘Surrendering to fate is nothing to be ashamed of; it was an unequal contest, so honour is satisfied.’ But you get the feeling he will probably have changed his mind again by the next day.
One of the things I found interesting about the novel is the way it presents as a matter of course the interconnectedness of the Islamic and European worlds of the seventeenth century. The books and curios Balthasar sells are an eclectic mixture of Greek, Roman and Arabic texts and archaeology, reminding the reader that theOttoman Empireencompassed what had earlier been major Greek and Roman settlements, the remains of which can still be found inByblos. For someone brought up with a Eurocentric view of history, it is refreshing to read about a merchant of Genoese extraction living in theLevant, and comfortable – more or less – in all the European places he visits. Maalouf is no doubt raising the question of identity: where is Balthasar (and perhaps Maalouf himself?) really at home? But I was fascinated by how easily Balthasar adapts to the wider world.
There is not much information about Maalouf available in English. It’s probably best to translate his French web page found here.