Thursday, June 10, 2010

Balthasar's Odyssey by Amin Maalouf

In the year 1666 (“the Year of the Beast”), mystically inclined adherents of the three Abrahamic religions have reason to believe a transformation of the world is at hand. In a small Levantine town, a bookseller and antiquities dealer named Balthasar Embriaco, descendant of an impoverished Genoese house, becomes aware through the agency of a Russian pilgrim of the existence of a book of Islamic scholarship which purports to reveal the secret and powerful “hundredth name of God.” Astonishingly, the only known copy of this rare book is subsequently given to him under strange circumstances, and is just as quickly whisked away from him by a French diplomat who visits Balthasar’s shop at the very moment he prepares to examine the precious tome. While Balthasar prides himself on his lack of superstition and what we nowadays would call his moral compass (in his case, a weathervane might be a more apt symbol), he is also – as we shall see in the course of the story - easily manipulated, and the more pious of his nephews convinces him that he must pursue this most divine book.

The narrative takes Balthasar and company to Constantinople, to Smyrna and Chios, to Genoa and even to London through a convoluted series of coincidences and unlikely circumstances. Who could not see in this odyssey the hand of Fate? Along the way, he falls in love with the wife (widow?) of a notorious brigand and develops intimacies with a series of sympathetic confidants, including a kindly and skeptical Jew, a rich Genoese merchant (who sees in Balthasar – the descendant of a noble yet almost extinct house – the perfect potential son-in-law), a dour ex-Puritan chaplain who almost incidentally possesses what Balthasar seeks. There are also myriad minor characters, including the mystical false messiah (and subsequent convert to Islam!) Sabbatai Sevi.

Now, given the geographical and philosophical distances traveled in this novel, one would expect that the text would progress towards some essential unity – some grand design or intrigue in which each character has a secret function in facilitating Balthasar’s odyssey. It seems we are in the midst of a grand novel of 15th century conspiracy, and we furrow our brows trying to tease out the connections and significances of people and events. But we do so in vain. Throughout the book, Balthasar is torn between his preferred rational skepticism and the strong pull of apocalyptic mysticism and superstition. Clearly, the signs are there pointing to an impending transformative conflagration, either in the form of Sevi’s rumored dominion yet to come or in the fire that engulfs London before the protagonist’s eyes. Yet such dramatically definitive resolutions are not in the cards for poor Balthasar, the supreme ditherer, for whom all vital decisions are made either by others or by the hand of Fate. He is, ultimately, soft and indecisive, given to the attractions of comfort. When he hits a new town, the first order of business is to find out where the good food is, and if it’s delivered by a plump and buxom redhead, so much the better. Is this a man who really wants to know the secret name of God? Given the opportunity, his eyes go dark, either from psychological blockage or his inherent unworthiness in the eyes of the Divine.

In the end, the great treasure is all forgotten in the face of an impending betrothal to the rich merchant’s teenage daughter, the book destined to be left “discreetly on a shelf in some bookshop, so that one day, years hence, other hands may take it up and look avidly into it, eyes which may by then be able to read it.”