BOOK REVIEW / The unlikely metamorphosis of the future: 'The First Century after Beatrice' - Amin Maalouf trs Dorothy Blair: Quartet, 14.95 pounds

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AMIN MAALOUF's novel (his third to appear in English) is a spare and elegant meditation on the dangers which confront society as it slips into the next century, and, in particular, on the disasters which can occur when ancient ways of thinking are joined to modern technology.

Maalouf, a Lebanese-born writer and journalist, has lived in Paris since the mid-Seventies and his latest book, Le Rocher de Tanios, has just won France's highest literary accolade, the Prix Goncourt. The First Century After Beatrice is narrated by an unnamed French entomologist who lives contentedly among his insects in a Parisian laboratory. The story is set somewhere in the first decades of the next century (Maalouf is coy with his dates), an 'age of retrogression', of endemic factional war. While the narrator secures a happy marriage and the birth of a beloved daughter (the Beatrice of the title), society is riven by atavistic hatreds. The cause is the development of a new substance which enables parents to choose that their children will be male: from this simple innovation follows a sequence of catastrophe.

Maalouf does not intend a straightforward indictment of technology. On a visit to Cairo the narrator notes that sentiments recorded on ancient Egyptian seals have a strangely contemporary ring: the phrase 'May your name live for ever and ever, and a son be born to you' occurs not only in antiquity, but on a box of 'scarab beans' bought from a street vendor, a quack remedy which supposedly improves virility and ensures the birth of a son. It's the ability of modern science to gratify such archaic superstitions that Maalouf identifies as the sinister threat confronting the human race. For like many others who set their stories in the future, Maalouf has one eye firmly on the present. The narrator's study of insects is essentially a study of metamorphosis: 'Everything which will form the beauty of the butterfly is there in the caterpillar.'

Although Maalouf's image of the future is not a happy one, this parable never becomes portentous. His prose achieves an effortless lyricism which is always a pleasure to read - a reason, perhaps, for some little optimism in itself. If someone is going to tell a story about the end of the world, we can glean some comfort from the fact that it is told in a voice as refined and delightful as Amin Maalouf's.