Existential chic

<strong>Fascination of Evil</strong>

Florian Zeller <em>Pushkin Press, 148pp, £7.99</em>


From the rock-star poses in his publicity shots to a clutch of literary accolades, the career of French intellectual prodigy Florian Zeller is enough to turn any self-respecting twentysomething green with envy. At the tender age of 27, Zeller can boast four novels, three stage plays and a parallel career as a journalist and university lecturer to his name.

Zeller has made his reputation dealing in big ideas. He is a self-professed devotee of Milan Kundera and the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who was famously sued by Muslim groups in France for criticisms of Islam contained in his 2001 novel Platform.

Fascination of Evil, which is Zeller's second novel to appear in translation, centres on a young author's short trip to Egypt to take part in a literary tour organised by the French embassy. On the plane journey to Cairo, he meets Martin Millet, another author who is taking part in the event and whose character bears a striking resemblance to Houellebecq. Despite their mutual dislike, the two novelists share a certain apprehension about travelling to a Muslim country. Later, their fears seem to be confirmed when they discover, to their horror, that Flaubert's Madame Bovary has been banned by the Egyptian authorities.

Nevertheless, Millet is determined to prove that Egypt is not completely in the grip of political Islam. Inspired by Flaubert's stories of erotic encounters with Cairo prostitutes, he is adamant that "sluts" are to be found lurking just around the corner and insists that they try to find them.

Despite his obvious distaste for the "frog"-like Millet, our narrator is drawn into his quest, initially as a bemused spectator. As the trip progresses, Millet is increasingly revealed to be driven by his own sexual frustrations - in particular his lack of success with girls as a teenager. Eventually the two become tangled in a web of romantic misunderstanding with a girl from the French embassy and a beautiful Moroccan woman named Lamia.

Needless to say, this is a familiar narrative ploy to fans of Shakespeare (or the US television series The OC). But most of the time the plot serves as a backdrop to Zeller's intellectual musings on the bigotry of religion and moral inconsistencies in Europe and the so-called Muslim world. It is done to provocative effect, taking Houellebecq's lead in using the novel as a blunt instrument to hammer home some uncomfortable philosophical points about contemporary society. Zeller's narrator claims to be interested in the "comparative history of religions" and is fond of quoting verses from the Koran that, as he sees it, give the lie to the myth of moderate Islam.

But whereas Houellebecq's writing carries you along with the force of its invective, Zeller's approach is colder, more like a damp Monday-morning lecture than the barbed humour of his contemporary. Sometimes it's funny, but only because the narrator is so earnest. Here's his reaction to Martin Millet's declaration that he does not believe in monogamy: "He frowned as he explained this to me, as if it were a personal concept, whereas the dissolution of the couple is on the contrary one of the West's most serious tendencies."

Fictional construct or not, this narrator bears a close resemblance to a precocious young man who is determined to put the world to rights - a fact that is emphasised by the novel's final twist, in which Millet finds himself at the centre of a media storm and is targeted by assassins for ideas expressed in his fiction. Here, Zeller can dispense with inconvenient details such as dialogue and launch into a diatribe against liberal Europe's capitulation to religious extremism. Indeed, his narrator declares that nothing less than fiction itself is under threat.

Reading Zeller, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of, as one French reviewer put it, a "frightening" talent. Unfortunately for Fascination of Evil, this talent seems to have abandoned any of the subtler aspects that the novel might have displayed in favour of a slightly annoying polemic. Themes such as the death of the narrator's parents are picked up and then substituted with more philosophising. And as for tales of the sex lives of rich young adults, well, The OC simply does it better.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics