NUR KARLICA IVERSON
, January 07, 2009
When you pick up Amin Maalouf’s Balthasar’s Odyssey, you will see a colorful illustration on the cover that is a historic scene, which give you the hint about the novel’s era. A big map on the first page shows where the journey takes place. The novel was written a journal style covering the period of time between 1665 and 1667. The main character of the book Balthasar Embriaco is an antique bookseller who lives in the Levantine town of Gibelet. He is almost forty years old, a widow, intelligent, and honest. One day, an old beggar named Idriss comes to his curio shop and consign a book to him. When Balthasar makes him a payment in his home, Idriss gives him a valuable book as gift, Abu-Maher al-Mazandarani’s The Unveiling of the Hidden Name, also known as “The Hundredth Name”. Even though Balthasar is skeptical about the book’s authenticity, he sells the book for a good price to a Chevalier, who is the envoy of the king of France. As soon as he sells the book, he feels regret about it. He goes back to Idriss’ place to give him money; finds out the old man had just passed away.
He feels obligated to look for the book, possibly buy back or at least try to read the book. His curiosity grows when his nephews insist to get the book. This rare copy of the book that contains the hundredth name of God; whoever learns this name, according to the Koran, would become immortal, thus survive the coming apocalypse. He decides to look for the book in Constantinople. He knows the Chavalier was going to travel there. He hopes to find the Chavalier and buy the book back from him, or possibly he could find another copy of the book from a bookseller in Constantinople.
Amin Maalouf writes vivid cultural details to create an authentic atmosphere. The novel captures the spirit of 17th-century. All three religions Christianity, Islam and Judaism, predict the year 1666, known as the year of the Beast, will be the end of the world. The book shows the religions have heavy influence of people daily life as well as their future expectation. Even though Balthasar is not pious, or even a strong believer, stopped believing in miracles long ago, but he still gets afraid that superstitions and rumors might come true.
Balthasar, his two nephews and his clerk start their travel on the mules first. When they were out of Gibelet, Marta joins them as well. When Balthasar was younger he was in love with beautiful Marta like all other young men in Gibelet. When she married Sayyaf, he stops feeling for her. Marta’s father dies a couple months after of her marriage. She inherits significant wealth. Sayyaf even though never worked entire his life “decided go to into in a big way and a charter a boat.” He takes all Marta’s money and goes to Tripoli. He never returns. She believes after many years waiting for him, he must be dead.
At the beginning of the journey Balthasar does not like having Marta around them, but feels responsible somehow to protect her during the trip. Marta’s aim is get a legal document from the authority that proves, she is a widow indeed. They travel together on mules, later on boats, exploring their destiny in the year of 1666.
Amin Maalouf shows weakness of the people, how religion affects people’s life, their attitude and even their languages’. While Balthasar travel from big cities to small towns, we read about many other characters, their view of the world through Balthasar’s notes.
He writes four notebooks during the trip cover more than a year. He tries to understand other cultures as well as people’s behaviors. He is indeed a naïve person, most the time he fails to understand what was going on around him. His journey takes him to several places including Constantinople, Smyrna, Chios, Genoa, London and back to Genoa. Before arriving to Constantinople, he falls in love with Marta. Marta is seeking a statement that her husband who abandoned her is dead so she can be free of his relatives. He also wants to get her husband death certificate so, he can marry her as an honorable man. He puts his life at risk to find her husband again whether death or alive. He is amazed himself finding a love about his forties when the world was so chaotic, full of sadness and hatred.
After chasing many lead about the book he realizes it was a crazy idea itself trying to get the book back. He now sees his aim changed since he is in love with Marta, getting the death certificate from Ottoman authority becomes his main concern. While they are in Smyrna, they are caught up in the enthusiasm surrounding the Jewish messiah Sabbatai. He meets several people, listen their ideas, and grows great concern about false messiah believers.
Balthasar is not a hero who aims to change the world; he is more humble, try to stay as honest and honorable as possible. He tries to keep his rationality but often falls to hand of superstitions. He finds himself chasing the signs, rather than listen his logic. He trusts his principles. The humiliation comes from authorities and people making him loose faith in humanity.
Balthasar’s Odyssey is an interesting book. If you are fond of historical novels, you will enjoy reading. As an Izmirian, I quite enjoyed the writings about 17th century Smyrna. Amin Maalouf portraits many vivid characters in the book, but often disappears from the book the way they enter. We never learn what happened to them. Maalouf choose to write about detail character developments, but does not necessarily connect them to the story. For instance we read about this mysterious prince. Balthazar meets Prince Ali Esfahani on the boat, becomes friends with him. We never hear from him again in the book. What readers should expect from this character in the book, it is not clear.
There are many side characters they tell their view of the world, but irrelevant to the plot. If these characters’ purpose are just to give the reader idea of the 17th century life style, or belief system, why they sound like they are part of the story but indeed they are not even connected the story much. In the book we read many rumors and beliefs about the prophecies and mysteries in several pages. The “year of the beast” is the background story of Balthazar’s journey. We read about people’s fear of their destiny, falsehood, deceit, disillusion and loosing their common senses. During his journey Balthazar sees in many places charlatans gets their fame into societies’. When people are afraid of unknown they are easily convinced of superstitious and rumors.
In the book mainly male characters have strong voices. In 391 pages of the book, we read many male characters’ religious view, their thought about fate and life. But there are only four women with very little introduction about them. First one is Balthazar’s sister at the beginning of the book. Very briefly enters the story.
Then, one of the main characters Marta as a pretty “widow”. The reader never understands what was Marta’s intention really. She does not have much of a voice in the book. We learn about her from his notes. It is not even clear why she chooses her husband over Balthazar? If Marta’s intention was getting the death certificate of her husband, why at the end she decides staying with him in Chios? If she were just a liar, if it was her real reason finding the husband that I would agree with. But still the book does not give me credible reason to believe why Marta would stay with him. She was waiting her husband return so long that she accepts even his death in her mind. Basically she suffers many years, but forgives her husband betrayal with no explanation?
Another break in flow in London Balthazar sleeps with Bess for a while. She saves his life from big London fire. At the end when he was back to Geneva, Giacominette, the 14 years old daughter of Gregorio. At the end of the story, Balthazar seems like will merry to this young girl and will live in Geneva. It is rather strange ending with a lot of unresolved issues.
At the end of the book, it is disappointing that Balthazar was not able to read the book “The Hundredth Name”. It was just because he had mysterious spell on his eyes. When he tries to read the book he cannot see pages. Then he losses his interest to the book. That is kind of odd ending for a bookseller who travels half of the world to find the book and leaves it on the shelf. Although the book contains many loose end of several characters, it carries colorful description of places and cultures. Maalouf writes beautifully in detail observations to the societies how people act. Balthazar is a living soul, his adventures, his feelings, his wrongness and weakness makes him loveable. In every town he visits booksellers, even though he is a foreigner, a traveler, he feels at home in the bookstores.