At just 26, Florian Zeller is one of the hottest literary talents in France. A playwright and journalist who lectures at the University of Political Science in Paris, he is about to publish his fourth novel; this is his third, and the second to be translated into English. A great admirer of Milan Kundera, Zeller adopts the Czech novelist's method - a spare, lean narrative in which characters are placed in testing situations, interspersed with philosophical disquisitions and dream-like episodes - to address one of the most pressing issues today: the relationship between Islam and the West.
His lucid style, admirably served in this translation by Sue Dyson, and topical subject matter helped the book to sell more than 70,000 copies in France, and won its author the Prix Interallié; the Dutch translation became a bestseller after the murder of the film-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004. The French title, La Fascination du pire, could perhaps be better translated as "Expecting the Worst".
The unnamed narrator, a young writer who may or may not be Zeller himself, is always imagining the worst-case scenario. Invited to a book fair in Cairo, he is joined by a fellow author, Martin Millet, who may or may not be Michel Houellebecq , the controversial French novelist prosecuted for inciting racial hatred in his 2001 novel Platforme. Aboard the plane, Millet picks a quarrel with a Saudi passenger who wants to change seats because he does not wish his wife to sit next to a Western man. The anxious narrator is already thinking of the possibility of a crash, when the Muslim passengers all stand up at once. Both he and Millet jump to the same conclusion, but it is actually time for prayer.
Armed with a copy of Flaubert's correspondence, Millet is determined to recreate the 19th-century author's sexual penetration of the Orient. His first question to their bemused guide from the embassy is, "Can a Westerner pick up an Egyptian girl?" He offends his hosts with his views on Islam, and drags the narrator on a comically futile odyssey through the night clubs of Cairo in search of an Egyptian woman who will have sex with him.
It is no accident that Zeller has made his shock-jock novelist a Francophone Swiss; the embattled defender of French civilisation hails from one of its outposts, just as the real-life Houellebecq was born in Réunion. At the bottom of Millet's sexual and cultural aggression lie insecurity and self-loathing. When he is given the brush-off by two women in the hotel bar, the narrator sees "something very menacing in his eyes, a kind of hatred... directed not against those two girls in particular, but against the whole of humanity, and at that moment I thought I glimpsed the man he truly was, and it frightened me."
Millet's crisis is heightened by the appearance of Lamia, an enigmatic French Muslim journalist who may or may not be the haughty beauty who rejected him while he was still a schoolboy. When Millet fails to turn up for an engagement, the narrator again fears the worst.
Embedded in the heart of the novel, the story of the unloved schoolgirl Astrid Grégoire examines the relationship between market forces and sexual liberation, a theme explored in Zeller's previous novel Lovers or Something Like it (Les Amants du n'importe quoi). In a society in which sexuality has become a commodity, the unattractive and the sexually gauche, like Martin and Astrid, lose out. Far from abolishing sexual frustration, Western freedom has intensified it.
The narrator observes that the Islamic world has a great tradition of poetry, but little fiction. The novel is a part of the process of individuation, and thus characteristic of the West. Its birth is simultaneous with the birth of the modern world, and a response to it. "This European art," he says, quoting Kundera, "is by definition incompatible with all religious thinking: for by its essence it is a kind of profanation."
Despite the inevitable comparisons made in the French press to Houellebecq, Zeller's novel is not an critique of Islam, but rather a nuanced examination of the fault lines where an intransigent Western sensibility meets an intransigent Muslim one. Yet it offers cold comfort for anyone on either side of the debate who believes that understanding can be fostered by self-censorship and emollient platitudes about respecting other cultures.Reuse content