A thirty-year-old Swiss author obsessed with finding prostitutes in Egypt goes on several uncomfortable searches through the sexually-repressed, Islamic city of Cairo in Florian Zeller’s short French novel, The Fascination of Evil, coming out in English translation next month from Pushkin Press. Martin Millet has been flown to Cairo to speak at a book fair, and his deadly, headlong determination to find the hidden voluptuous sexuality that Flaubert once found in that ancient city long ago becomes the subject of the story’s narrator, a young French author flying with him to the book fair.
Amid a constant threat of danger, though everyone assures him Egyptian prostitutes don’t exist, the young narrator accompanies Millet on his nocturnal searches for the secret whores he’s convinced are there, guided by sinister, smiling men who grin for unknown reasons. Then Millet goes missing at the last big book fair event, and is finally discovered brooding in his hotel room with a black eye. Or did the black eye happen afterward? The narrator isn’t quite sure.
Millet could be a stereotype Westerner, but he’s not. The narrator doesn’t know whether he likes him or loathes him, and neither does the reader. Formerly overweight, never an attractive boy, he’s one of the zillions of people who watch others indulge in the sensual pleasures they can’t possess.
The story jumps through several hoops by the narrative’s end, including becoming a novel called The Fascination of Evil written by Martin Millet, which at the end we suspect was written by our own author, and in fact, is probably the book we just read. But too often the story bogs down in academics, particularly at the reception of the novel-within-a-novel, and the book’s passionate, frequently interesting wrestling match with Islam blocks any of the characters from taking on any life.
Its questioning, contemporary nature, the sparring of religions, the realistic portrait of Europeans breeching cultural norms in Muslim countries, are all as fascinating as the fascination of evil in the title, which refers to the expectation of disaster, a particularly Western point of view. The novel definitely plays with those expectations. A likeable character or two might have transformed this book into a human experience. I was hoping for a short, provocative book for my book club. Guess not.