BOOK REVIEW / Scarab powder fuels the sex war: 'The First Century after Beatrice' - Amin Maalouf; tr. Dorothy S Blair: Quartet, 14.95 pounds

Ziauddin Sardar
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:26

MAY YOUR name live forever and a son be born to you. This ancient Egyptian prayer is elegantly transformed into a modern parable by Amin Maalouf. The First Century After Beatrice is a brilliant and succinct contemplation on what happens when modern science is placed in the service of medieval prejudices and traditional wisdom is abandoned in favour of contemporary expediency.

We are somewhere in the not-too-distant future in the company of a world renowned entomologist. On a visit to Cairo he discovers an unusual use for a certain scarab beetle. When consumed as a powder, the insect enhances virility and guarantees the birth of a son. Initial scepticism about the 'scarab powder' turns into suspicion of something deeper when his partner, a high-flying journalist, discovers that it is being sold in India, all over Africa and much of the Third World. Suspicion turns into at obsession when the couple discover a sharp decline in the birth of girls all over the South.

The narrator himself has a strong desire for a daughter. And his young wife eventually rewards him with one: his beloved Beatrice. The couple spend all their time, during the decade after the birth of Beatrice, examining the trends they have accidentally discovered and seeking answers to the frightening questions they pose. Is there real power in the 'scarab powder' to immunise women against the birth of girls? Is gender bias the sole preserve of the 'underdeveloped people of the world'? Is there a conspiracy to depopulate the world?

The quest of his characters allows Maalouf to explore some urgent themes about the nature of modern science and technology and their relationship to society. Buried in the narrative of the novel are a number of sharply observed essays on how corrupt science is. Far from freeing us from ancient prejudices, he seems to be saying, new scientific discoveries are often used to perpetuate and confirm them.

When the truth about the 'scarab powder' is eventually discovered, the narrator and his partner organise a 'Network of Sages' that campaigns to ban 'gynosterilisation' and highlight the dangers that an unbalanced population presents to the world. The drug companies try to redeem themselves by producing a 'reverse substance' that speeds up the birth of girls - but this has its own problems. The Network succeeds even to the extent of getting a hearing at the UN. But by now many global trends and the strife and violence they have generated have become irreversible.

Maalouf, born in Lebanon, based in Paris, and winner of the Prix Goncourt for his latest novel Le Rocher de Tanios, is a writer of considerable depth and sophistication. And the novel contains all the Maalouf traits: clinical in its observations, profound in its analysis, knitting an allegory that works on a number of levels. On one level, it simply offers a contemporary definition of women in relation to patriarchal power and social perceptions. On another level, it is a reflection on how the weapons of the future are being used to settle the racial and religious conflicts that date back to the distant past. On yet another level, The First Century After Beatrice is a meditation on one of the most forgotten virtues of our time: wisdom.

Maalouf has a grim, but not entirely pessimistic, view of the future. He warns us that all villainies are possible, but none is inevitable - provided we watch ourselves carefully. And he leaves us with a number of urgent questions to ponder. After banishing the god of 'how', how far can science go in its quest for the god of 'why' before degenerating into total meaninglessness? Can mankind take moral risks and still survive to see the next century? Can the industrialised North keep its prosperity and insanity intact while the South plunges into deeper and deeper poverty? Do we have the ability to transform ourselves, like the narrator's caterpillars, into butterflies, into a higher order of being?

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