Florian Zeller: The Fascination Of Evil
Florian Zeller, from what I can gather, is the latest darling of the French literary scene. At twenty-six, he is a novelist, a playwright, and a lecturer. And, for one so young, he has received a number of literary awards. His third novel, The Fascination Of Evil, was recently published by Pushkin Press, a publisher well known for producing quality books from international authors, new and old. And, as novels go, it’s a mature work with hints of Kundera, dealing with the decline of morals in both Islamic nations and the West.
The story begins with the unnamed narrator preparing for a flight to Egypt for a literary conference. He is due to meet and travel with Swiss novelist, Martin Millet, of whom he is aware but not acquainted in person or in work. And while the narrator, with his girlfriend at home, is looking for a quiet life, Millet is more interested in kicking up a fuss within Egyptian society, spouting his opinions on Islam, and, for most of the novel, finding local women who will have sex with him. This latter desire is inspired by letters Flaubert wrote about his time in Egypt. And, as Millet’s obsession grows, the narrator finds himself dragged further into the author’s world. Then, without warning, Millet vanishes. The narrator, of course, can do nothing but fear the worst for his companion.
The Fascination Of Evil concerns itself, at a deeper level, with the diminishing power of words. It looks at the suras of the Koran, at their hold over the devout, but then, as Millet learns during a meal, there are those who claim to hold true to the tenets of Islam yet, the minute they head to a more liberal nation, the words that dictate their faith are soon forgotten:
“They’re not Egyptian women. They are often Lebanese or Moroccan, but they are not Egyptian. And they only sleep with Saudis, I believe. In any event, for Egyptians, there is no prostitution and no sexual freedom.”
“What do they do?” lamented Martin.
“They bugger each other.”
Apart from that, the food was excellent.
Zeller, however, is not like Millet and is not out to upset Islam. Indeed, aside from pointing out the hypocrisy inherent with some Muslims, he also takes a swipe at Europe. The continent has allowed freedom to send it into decline. Political correctness has reared its ugly head and when religious groups (say, Muslims) protest at novels (Rushdie gets an honourable mention), we seek to remove the offence rather than staunchly support it. By seeking to be inoffensive we are watering down our own culture. Such subtexts lend the novel an impressive depth and you can’t help but agree with Zeller’s observations.
The book’s title, as it would be giving nothing away, relates to the feeling of fearing the worst. The narrator comes to feel the fascination of evil when Millet vanishes after a night out hunting women. But the true fascination, as implied by the denouement, is the fear of what is happening to the west. There are many facets in which our continent, the narrator believes, is falling apart, one such example being letter-writing:
It’s the telephone, and in particular the mobile, that has killed off the art of letter-writing once and for all. I often think of those women who lived in hope, with the pledge of one single love letter, when the other person, for example, went off to war. Back then, words had a formidable strength, since they decided lives. People waited, and trusted, even without news of the other person, for infinite lengths of time. Today, you start panicking the moment you can’t get that other person on your mobile. What’s he doing? Why isn’t she answering? Who’s he with? Anxiety has gained ground. We have entered a period of no return that signals the end of waiting, that is, of trust and silence.
Zeller’s prose style is not florid – to an extent it’s simplistic, realist. Each sentence serves to make a point or an observation and does so without decoration. If I were to have a criticism it would be the sheer volume of exclamation marks used where they were wholly unnecessary, although that may be a quirk of a translator who had a quota to use up, especially when they would appear in the narrative rather than within speech.
Although The Fascination Of Evil, at times, reminded me of Kundera because of the sporadic digressions the narrator would make, the ending was more reminiscent of Houellebecq (from whom Millet is no doubt inspired) that the narrator goes beyond the original narrative and aims to provide a conclusion to all that has gone before, something, I admit, for which I’m not a convert. But, overall, Zeller succeeds at producing a great tale that offers up some interesting points that merit consideration.
And, while he’s still young, The Fascination Of Evil showcases the wisdom of an fantastic talent who must surely be deserving of a great future in literature. And, since I’ve already been looking into his previous novels, it certainly looks like this novel could just be the beginning to my fascination of Zeller.
June 1, 2007