The Fascination of Evil, by Florian Zeller


In Florian Zeller’s 2004 short but complex novel, a French author living in Paris is invited by his embassy in Cairo to speak at a book festival in the city.  A fellow invitee, Martin Millet, is naively obsessed with emulating Flaubert’s sexual adventures in Egypt.  Unfortunately for him, times have changed and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is not the sexually liberated place of his imagination.  Looking for ripe eastern sensuality he discovers instead repression both sexual and political, and veiled women unavailable to a frustrated Westerner.  The only prostitutes (or possible prostitutes) in town are not Egyptian but Moroccan and Lebanese.  Sadly for Martin they will only sleep with wealthy Saudis, whose hypocrisy comes in for criticism: ultra-orthodox at home and decrying Western decadence, but licentious abroad.

Islam is of course shown to be entirely repressive towards women.  The narrator has an incident on the plane taking him to Egypt, full of pilgrims going on to Mecca, when a man objects to him sitting next to a veiled wife.  Their proximity is an affront to some kind of idea of modesty, but the ridiculousness of the posture is subsumed by concerns over cultural sensitivity and everybody changes seats in order to avoid an unpleasant situation.  (Later, reinforcing the sense of entitlement, a large number of passengers get up and start praying in the aisles, ignoring pleas to return to their seats when the plane hits some turbulence and oblivious to the inconvenience they are causing non-Muslim passengers with the noise and congestion.)

The narrator muses on how such a sexually repressed society can function healthily, and the ultimate answer is that it doesn’t.  Martin keeps wanting to go ‘behind the scenes’ in Cairo, by which he means he wants penetrative sex with a woman, despite being told repeatedly it can’t be found in modern Egypt.  There are clip joints certainly, of varying degrees of seediness full of local men grateful for not much, but Martin’s goal of meeting someone willing to have sex with him remains a mirage.  Flaubert certainly had an easier time locating the fleshpots when he visited the country.

Zeller does not just explore retrograde attitudes towards sexuality within Islam.  Martin notes that its texts express violence towards anyone who does not share its ideology, such as ‘the suras calling for the extermination of infidels’.  He argues that assertions of Islam to be essentially peaceful and its violence merely ‘a certain interpretation’ are made by those who have either not read the Koran or who appreciate that their justification is bogus but are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Islam’s dour principles are directly counterposed to the liberal values of Western democracies.  Martin and the narrator find at the book fair that the vast bulk of the volumes are religious, with literature occupying a tiny part of it; an Egyptian writer claims Islam and ‘real literature’ are incompatible.  Egyptians, the visitors are told, don’t read much fiction.  The newspapers in Egypt are state-controlled, in the narrator’s eyes making their philistine critics, who speak of the necessity for literature to be ‘moral’, by which they mean Islamic, no better than civil servants and their opinions on the matter consequently of no value.  ‘Criticism’ and ‘cretinism’ are not, the narrator decides, too far apart here.  You do have to wonder at the largesse of the French culture ministry that they can afford such a futile exercise as funding these two minor novelists to give a couple of talks to indifferent audiences.

This is a country where the Thousand and One Nights is banned and Madame Bovary considered alien to the moral life of Egypt.  But more, Flaubert is used by Egyptian commentators to condemn Western standards generally and, Martin maintains, the rot is spreading to Europe itself.  The narrator considers Flaubert’s description of his encounter with a prostitute, censored by his niece, and the danger of assuming one has possession of the truth and it is the only truth which counts: ‘In this respect, Flaubert’s niece was as dangerous as the Sheikh of Cairo.’  The analysis given during a talk that the novel form represents modernity with its freedoms, complexities and ambiguities, which is why Islam, rooted in a pre-modern worldview, has a problem with it, unsurprisingly has a frosty reception.

Even so, The Fascination of Evil takes aim as well at archaic notions of Orientalism, satirising Martin as he blunders about propositioning women he assumes are ‘whores’ while he explains away his lack of success as being the fault of Saudis with deeper pockets.  Somehow assuming the Egypt of 2004 to be roughly the same as the Egypt Flaubert had experienced in 1849, Martin, in his self-absorption seeks his goals without thought for others’ sensibilities, echoing the way Western governments and their citizens have behaved in the past.

Partway through, the book changes tack and Martin’s backstory becomes important.  As an unattractive youth, he had been snubbed by a girl, and he thinks she is now on the embassy staff but hasn’t recognised him.  He manipulates the narrator to be the vehicle of his revenge on her.  This part is less successful because the mechanism for Martin’s plan is arbitrary as there are numerous ways events could have developed otherwise.  It feels forced, but Martin’s chequered romantic history allows Zeller to make the point that while Islam may have a repressive attitude to sex, European freedoms can have their own downside when it comes to interpersonal relationships and the fulfilment of sexual desire.

Also towards the end you get an inkling the narrator is not necessarily reliable.  Martin gets a black eye while out on his own looking for sex, but later, during a tussle, the narrator thinks he may have given it to him.  There are occasional indications that the narrator’s memory may not be dependable, and words like hallucination and apparition suggest his perceptions are off-kilter.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning which states: ‘This book is fiction: the majority of what is said in it is not true the rest, by definition, isn’t either.’  Possibly not, but in what follows we learn not to trust what we are told, so there is no reason to believe that this statement is accurate either.

It gets even stranger because six months after the end of the trip the narrator receives a book apparently written by Martin using a different name (but Martin Millet wasn’t his real name either) called The Fascination of Evil, published the same year as Zeller’s book and recounting the trip Zeller has just described in his The Fascination of Evil, though with some differences.  Despite having heard it all at first-hand previously, the narrator considers the descriptions of Islam, and the gradual Islamisation of Europe Martin’s book predicts, to be ‘defamatory and insulting’ to countries towards which he himself harbours an attraction.

Amusingly Zeller (or rather the narrator) quotes a fictional article which characterises the book – i.e. Martin’s, but by extension Zeller’s – as ‘bad’, and describes the search for the writer’s identity being conducted, after dismissing Michel Houellebecq, among the ‘less important authors’.  While continuing to deny responsibility Martin is eventually outed, generating accusations of Islamophobia against him among those quick to be offended.  Martin points out very reasonably that taking issue with religious doctrine is a philosophical act having nothing to do with its adherents, and to accuse a critic of being racist, and inciting racial hatred, is dishonestly conflating the two.

Zeller has to stress that fiction does not necessarily represent the views of its creator, something it shouldn’t be necessary to spell out but is for people who tend not to read novels unless looking for something to complain about; there is a reference to the Salman Rushdie persecution which highlighted the clash between Enlightenment values and those holding to a more rigid ethos.  Zeller’s may be a cake-and-eat-it strategy but that does not diminish the danger of rational debate being stifled by lazy charges of Islamophobia and the fear of violent overreaction from those who are adamant their views take precedence over others’.  It sounds as if Zeller has Rushdie in mind when charting Martin’s tribulations, but as it happens Rushdie was luckier than Martin, who meets his fate at the hands of an extremely severe opponent of his right to express opinions without being murdered.  Zeller implies that if we in the West fail to defend our culture, as symbolised by the freedom of the novel form, then we deserve everything we get.


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