Balthasar’s Odyssey, published fittingly enough in the year 2000, is a novel by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. Maalouf, a former Prix Goncourt winner, writes in French rather than Arabic and in the 2003 Vintage translation I read is excellently translated by Barbara Bray.
This is the first Maalouf novel I’ve read, though I also have some of his non-fiction work on my shelf. I’ll be buying more. Balthasar’s Odyssey was warm, funny, intelligent, charming and at times extremely thought provoking. It’s also a tremendous blend of historical and literary fiction, enjoyable simply as a tale of a Levantine book merchant’s quest for a rare text across Seventeenth-century Europe or as a meditation on mortality, faith, tolerance, the importance of doubt and indeed on what it is to be a writer.
The novel opens in the year 1665. Balthasar Embriaco is a bookseller of Genoese family, but born and bred in Gibelet (also known as Byblos). He 40 years old, a plump widower kept company by his two nephews and his servant. A mild mannered and scholarly man, he is browbeaten by the more religiously observant of his nephews (Boumeh) into entering into a quest for a book titled The Hundredth Name. Boumeh believes (as do many others) that 1666 is the final year of the world, the apocalypse foretold in the bible and other holy texts, but the missing book is said to contain the famous hundredth name of god and knowledge of that name brings with it power that may help one survive the days to come.
Or may not, for Balthasar is something of a mild sceptic, worried that the apocalypse may be coming and that Boumeh may be correct, but suspicious too that Boumeh’s prophecies are too neat, his signs too convenient, that the world will continue as it always has:
I always think that if you look for signs you find them, and I write this down lest, in the maelstrom of madness that is seizing the world, I should one day forget it. Manifest signs, speaking signs, troubling signs – people always manage to “prove” what they want to believe; they’d be just as well off if they tried to prove the opposite.
Balthasar is a somewhat vain man, proud of his family’s long and once distinguished name, of his own business and reputation, of his intellect. To show belief in what he suspects to be mere superstition would be an embarrassment, a humiliation even, but what if he is wrong, what if the world really is about to end? Balthasar’s is is an equivocal soul, he is kind and generous but he is not the strongest willed of men.
Balthasar is also, critically, a writer – he keeps a journal of his travels and that journal forms the novel itself. The text is Balthasar’s journal, his thoughts, his observations, his private hopes, fears and shames. The consequence of that is that Balthasar’s Odyssey as a work is only enjoyable as long as Balthasar himself is enjoyable to spend time with, as long as he is interesting. It is fortunate then that he is one of the most likeable and most human characters I have encountered in fiction for quite some time.
As mentioned above, it’s quite possible to simply read Balthasar’s Odyssey as an often extremely funny account of a middle-aged and rather portly merchant’s misadventures across the Seventeenth-century world. He travels through Constantinople, where he encounters spectacular levels of corruption, to Chios where he encounters smugglers and yet more corruption, to Genoa, Amsterdam and to London itself. Along the way, he makes various friends, many of them themselves at least a touch eccentric, falls in love and engages in a touchingly written romance all the better for its at time faint absurdity (and which of us hasn’t been absurd when in love?). He runs into strange religious orders and dangerous criminals alike, all on a mission to obtain a book he isn’t persuaded actually has any real power at all.
There is then a great deal of gentle comedy in this work, but plenty of reminders too of quite how perilous the world back then was and quite how major an undertaking significant travel was too. Balthasar on his journeys has to contend with inclement weather, illness and plague, grasping and tricksy caravan masters, madmen and war. Death, on several occasions, is a real prospect. There are times he must hide from angry mobs, from possible execution, his journey is a terrifying one in many respects and he is not a courageous man by nature.
As a simple piece of historical fiction, Balthasar’s Odyssey is extremely successful. The characters are concerned with issues of their day, they persuade as men and women of their time and the places and incidents along the way are credible and well realised. If there were nothing else, I would have thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
Balthasar’s Odyssey though is not just a work of historical fiction. It is also a discussion of faith, doubt, fear and of what it is to be human. The concerns of the characters are concerns of their time, but concerns of ours too – intolerance, extremism, the dangers of people too convinced of their own rightness. Balthasar’s Odyssey is about the Seventeenth-century, yes, but humanity’s flaws then were the same as humanity’s flaws today.
Balthasar spends part of his journey with a Jewish friend he meets along the way, Maīmoun. Here Balthasar and Maīmoun are discussing the most beautiful sentence in any religion, Balthasar has proposed “Love they neighbour as thyself”, Maīmoun has reservations:
‘Wait. There’s something else, something more worrying, in my view. Some people are always sure to interpret this precept with more arrogance than magnanimity. They’ll read it as saying: What’s good for you is good for everyone else. If you know the truth, you ought to use every possible means to rescue lost sheep and set them on the right path again. Hence the forced baptisms imposed on my ancestors in Toledo in the past. And I myself have heard the injunction quoted more often by wolves than by lambs. So I’m sorry – I have doubts about it.”
“If you’re looking for the most beautiful saying to be found in any religion, the most beautiful that ever issued from the lips of man, that’s not it. The one I mean was spoken by Jesus too. He didn’t take it from Scripture though, he just listened to his own heart.”
What could it be? I waited. Maīmoun stopped his mount for a moment to underline the solemnity of his quotation.
“Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone.”
Maīmoun too is a sceptic of the coming apocalypse, a more robust one than Balthasar who secretly doubts his own doubt. Maīmoun’s father, however, has no such doubts and fervently believes that the end days have come, indeed once equally fervently believed that they were due in 1648 and when the day of resurrection then failed to arrive on schedule merely adjusted his expected dates. Maīmoun lost his faith when his father’s apocalypse failed to arrive, his father merely assumed it had started but somewhere far away and so the evidence had yet to arrive. Maīmoun’s father, in other words, has faith. Maīmoun has none, all he has is tolerance, a belief in the importance of not judging others, and a hope that one day the whole world may be like Amsterdam where it is said Jew and Gentile are able to live in peace.
The issue of faith is one of many (too many for one blog entry) strands in this novel. Balthasar’s nephew, Boumeh, believes in numerology and that the secrets of the future are laid out in ways that can be divined through the manipulation of words and numbers. In one marvellous sequence, Boumeh rather patronisingly explains to Balthasar and Maīmoun how numerology proves that 1666 is the last year of the world:
“But why was an event announced in 1648 that’s supposed to take place in 1666? That’s a mystery I can’t understand!” I said.
“Nor can I,” agreed Maīmoun.
“I don’t see any mystery,” said Boumeh, with irritating calm.
Everyone waited with baited breath for him to go on. He took his time, then went on loftily:
“There are eighteen years between 1648 and 1666.”
“So?” asked Habib, through a mouthful of crystallised apricots.
“Don’t you see? Eighteen – six plus six plus six. The last three steps to the Apocalypse.”
There followed a most ominous silence. I suddenly felt that the pestilential vapour was approaching and closing in on us. Maīmoun was the most pensive of those present: it was as if Boumeh had just solved an old enigma for him. Hatem bustled around us, wondering what was the matter: he’d caught only scraps of our conversation.
It was I who broke the silence.
“Wait a moment, Boumeh!” I said. “That’s nonsense. I don’t have to tell you that in the days of Christ and the Evangelists people didn’t write six six six as you would today in Arabic: they wrote it in Roman figures. And your three sixes don’t make sense.”
“So can you tell me how they wrote 666 in the days of the Romans?”
“You know very well. Like this.”
I picked up a stick and wrote “DCLXVI” on the ground.
Maīmoun and Habib bent over and looked at what I’d written. Boumeh just stood where he was, not even glancing our way. He just asked me if I’d never noticed anything particular about the numbers I’d just traced. No, I hadn’t.
“Haven’t you noticed that all the Roman figures are there, in descending order of magnitude, and each occurs only once?”
“Not all of them,” I said quickly. “One’s missing…”
“Go on, go on – you’re getting there. There’s one missing at the beginning. The M – write it! Then we’ll have ‘MDCLXVI’. One thousand six hundred and sixty-six. Now the numbers are complete. And the years are complete. Nothing more will be added.”
Then he reached out and erased the figure completely, muttering some magic formula he’d learned.
A curse on numbers and on those who make use of them!
Balthasar is an intelligent man, but not a worldly one. He is often outwitted, and there are several occasions where he may have been outwitted, but cannot be sure and because he cannot we cannot. He is as reliable a narrator as he can be, but he is human and the limits of his perception become the limits of ours. As a reader, we too have to doubt, to operate in the absence of perfect knowledge, we have to accept that much as we may wish otherwise not all the answers may be forthcoming. There may be things we never know, however much we might wish to.
And that takes me onto another of the novel’s themes, what it means to be mortal, to know that everything we do may be lost on our death. Balthasar is a writer, he records all that he encounters and more importantly his secret thoughts and fears in his journals, but why? What’s the point of doing so? Indeed, what’s the point of doing anything?
Balthasar, and Balthasar’s Odyssey, has no answer to that. Balthasar after all is one of those in his world who do not have faith, and having no faith he has no solutions. Nonetheless, the nature of his quest – the possibility of apocalypse and of perhaps a magic name that will allow fate to be escaped – naturally turn his mind to these issues.
In the following passage, Balthasar is facing the loss of his journals, and asking himself why, if he cannot be sure his words will survive, he writes at all:
I know my words are bound to end up in oblivion. Our whole existence borders on oblivion. But we need at least a semblance, an illusion of permanence if we are to do anything at all. How can I fill these pages, how can I go on searching for the right words to describe events and emotions, if I can’t come back in ten or twenty years to revisit my past? And yet I still am writing, and shall go on doing so. Perhaps the honour of mortals resides in their inconsistencies.
Later, sitting in his room in a wooden building with the Great Fire of London approaching, Balthasar’s thoughts again turn to mortality:
The all-devouring fire draws closer and closer, and I sit here at this wooden table, in this wooden room, committing my last thoughts to a sheaf of pages that will ignite at the smallest spark! It’s madness, madness! But isn’t that just an image of my mortal condition? I dream of eternity when my grave is already dug, piously commending my soul to the One who’s about to snatch it away from me. When I was born I was a few years away from death. Now it may be no more than a few hours. But what’s a year anyway in comparison with eternity? What’s a day? An hour? A second? Such measures only have meaning for a heart that’s still beating.
Writing here becomes a metaphor for mortality, the act of writing, of recording something in the face of nothing, becomes both pointless and yet marvellous. An expression of hope in the absence of anything obvious to hope for. Balthasar is a frightened man, he does not want to die, he does not want his words to be lost, but he cannot help the risk of these things and so continues as if those risks did not exist. What else is there to do?
He writes for another reason too, one that perhaps holds true for any writer, he writes because it is his nature to do so. Because he cannot do otherwise.
What else can I do? My pen wields me as much as I wield it. I have to follow its path just as it follows mine.
All of that makes this sound a despairing novel, it really isn’t though. Balthasar is afraid of dying, but mostly his fears are more quotidian. There is a powerful sequence where the woman he has fallen in love with must go back for a while to her former lover, and his fears then at what may occur and whether she will return to him are in their way much worse than his fear of death or the end of the world (which really, as he reflects in the quote I used for my title, are the same thing). There is something profoundly human in this, he has his dark nights of the soul but he has too his mornings making love in a sunlit room, his meals with friends and late evening conversations, his anguish at the prospect of separation from friends and lovers, his guilt when he lets people down. The triumph of this novel is in the humanity of its protagonist, in his continuing to be human even though he suspects there is no purpose to it or to anything else. At the end, Balthasar’s Odyssey is a curiously hopeful novel – even though it holds out nothing particularly to hope for. We just hope anyway, we may as well.