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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fascination of Evil

Florian Zeller

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To purchase The Fascination of Evil

Title: The Fascination of Evil
Author: Florian Zeller
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Fascination of Evil - US
The Fascination of Evil - UK
The Fascination of Evil - Canada
La fascination du pire - Canada
The Fascination of Evil - India
La fascination du pire - France
Il fascino del peggio - Italia
  • French title: La fascination du pire
  • Translated by Sue Dyson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-written, and an intriguing approach to provocation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 20/9/2004 Marie Zawisza
L'Humanité . 23/9/2004 Guillaume Chérel
Independent on Sunday . 26/11/2006 C.J.Schüler
New Statesman . 22/1/2007 Daniel Trilling

  From the Reviews:
  • "On voit que Zeller a fait Sciences Po (ses démonstrations sont carrées) et qu’il aime la provocation. Mais on se demande où il veut en venir. Surtout avec sa surprenante fin en queue de poisson." - Guillaume Chérel, L'Humanité

  • "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. (...) 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." - C.J.Schüler, Independent on Sunday

  • "But most of the time the plot serves as a backdrop to Zeller's intellectual musings on the bigotry of religion and moral inconsistencies in Europe and the so-called Muslim world. (...) Reading Zeller, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of, as one French reviewer put it, a "frightening" talent. Unfortunately for Fascination of Evil, this talent seems to have abandoned any of the subtler aspects that the novel might have displayed in favour of a slightly annoying polemic." - Daniel Trilling, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Fascination of Evil is a two-for-one book, containing both practice and theory, a slim work of modern fiction covering all the (literary) bases. Most of it is straightforward, a simple story, simply but ably told. Only near the conclusion do book and author turn on themselves, fiction becoming metafiction, medium also becoming message.
       The narrator is a French author who is invited to Cairo by the French Embassy in Egypt, "to give a talk as part of a sort of book fair". He begins the story on the morning of his departure, and describes his day in some detail, along with a few digressions -- mentioning his one previous trip to Egypt, thoughts about flying and terrorism, reading Flaubert, etc. At the airport he meets another author who has received the same invitation, controversial (Houellebecq-like) Swiss author Martin Millet, and they travel together. They certainly stand out on the plane: only making a stop in Cairo before heading on to Jeddah, it is filled with pilgrims -- and: "All the women were veiled."
       The visit to Cairo is, in fact a head-on confrontation with Islam. The narrator is wary but, for the most part, happy enough to play tourist; Millet is considerably more aggressive -- especially in his ambition to get a local woman to sleep with him.
       Relatively little happens: most of the book describes a typical state-sponsored author-visit -- including the authors heading into the city at night in the hopes of having a good time. But there's an edge to this: the narrator isn't particularly eager to pick anyone up (he has a girl waiting for him at home -- though there's a bit of uncertainty about that relationship as well), while Martin is thoroughly unpleasant in his fairly single-minded pursuit. There's a bit of erotic tension -- the various embassy employees and author-minders providing most of it -- but the far greater tension is between Orient and Occident, the secular authors very much strangers in this strange (and blatantly and mystifyingly Islamic) country.
       Martin is particularly upset by the double-standard of "Islam's debauchees" ("obese, vulgar Saudis", for the most part) -- though it's less the double-standard that upsets Martin than the fact that they get the girls. Meanwhile, he can't even get the local prostitutes to sleep with him:

     "They told me to piss off ! Can you imagine ? I've hit an all-time low ! Whores tell me to piss off ..."
       A good time (of the sort Martin is looking for) is hard to find in Cairo, and a nearly all-night expedition to some of the dingiest dives yields pitiful results. There's nothing remotely erotic or exotic to be found; each place seems even more sordid than the next.
       There's a bit of suspense when Martin seems to have disappeared, and the narrator ducks out of an event in order to try to find him, but beyond a black eye there's little actual drama. But the narrator does learn more about Martin's past, including that 'Martin Millet' is only his pen-name, as well as about his love-less adolescence, which clearly scarred him.
       Martin is frustrated and outraged by the sexual repression he sees in Islamic culture, but obviously he has his own sexual frustrations to deal with; getting blown off (and not in the good way) by prostitutes certainly does nothing to make him feel better about himself or the world.
       The narrator remains uneasy in this culture as well, but as he's told at yet another point when he grows alarmed:
     Then, with a disarming smile, she told me that I mustn't immediately imagine there'd been a catastrophe. According to her this was a characteristic attitude of Westerners; she called it 'the fascination of evil'.
       The narrator is also not as directly confrontational as Martin, but at one of the literary events he does offer an opinion that doesn't appear to be well-received among the locals:
if the Islamic world generally had difficulties with the novel, it was because it was living to a large extent in an era that belonged to the period before modern times, bogged down in archaisms that were by their essence incompatible with the foundations of the novel: freedom, fantasy, complexity, the ambiguity of all truths and the suspension of moral judgement. In this respect, the novel could easily become the battle ground between two civilisations.
       The bulk of the novel -- some nine-tenths of it -- is, arguably, a novel that shows the clash of two very different civilisations -- but on an individual level, and less as a fundamental one. Martin does go off on a rant about the "practical incompatibility between the Western system and Islam", but it is a rant, and not necessarily supported by the experiences of the characters in the book. More significantly, Martin's judgement is naturally called into question because it is his own sexual frustration that much of his anti-Islamic feeling can be attributed to. Martin's failures -- and specifically his sense of failure -- in Egypt is exacerbated by Islam, but Islam is not the root cause; Martin is a dud who has problems with rejection, and has had for a long time.
       In the last tenth of the book, however, Zeller takes it all one step further, and puts the novel (this one, as well as 'the novel' in general) centre stage, making it literally a battle ground: several months after returning to Europe the narrator receives a package from Martin, "a book entitled The Fascination of Evil" (though there is a different author's name on it). It begins just like the book of the same name the reader is holding ("How can you start a novel like that ?", the narrator complains), and it sounds -- for the most part -- very much like it:
It was a realist novel, very contemporary, throwing down crazy gauntlets to modernity, without any poetic detour or real writing -- exactly what I didn't like in literature.
       The plot ultimately diverges from what the narrator claims actually happened, but the narrator -- and the public -- are less concerned with the actual story than the existence of the book itself. It becomes a cause célèbre, and soon:
Nobody had any further doubts: Martin had written a loathsome book in which Islam was odiously attacked. The text no longer had any importance. Nobody referred to it any more. It no longer existed.
       And this is, of course, exactly what Zeller has been after all along, this is that fundamental incompatibility of Islam and the novel ('the novel' being, in a sense, the culmination of Western civilization) that he wants to demonstrate. The course of events that he envisioned sum it all up:
All of this heralded, in a way, the death of fiction. In other places, this would quite simply have been called: the exercise of terror.
       There are additional clever shadings in the story and the text, but what is perhaps most remarkable is how very, very careful Zeller is in building up his challenge. The extent to which it is hidden behind layers of authorship (e.g. the pseudonymous Martin writing under another pseudonym -- and that's likely not the end of it) is already telling, and the emphasis on an almost misleading foundation -- the detailed description of what might appear irrelevant -- makes the final turn all the more effective. But the twist also casts a new light on the rest of the novel, and many bits suddenly read as very different clues. (Easily forgotten by the end is, for example, the origin of the title -- that "characteristic attitude of Westerners" to immediately imagine there's a catastrophe when, in fact, there's nothing to worry about .....)
       It's cleverly if not entirely convincingly done. Still, part of the appeal of the novel is that Zeller did not allow the book to become too weighty, the argumentation ponderous: it's a slim provocation -- a jab, rather than a full-blown argument -- but worthwhile as such. There aren't enough books like this -- imperfect, yes, but thought-provoking, well-written, clever.

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The Fascination of Evil: Reviews: Florian Zeller: Other books by Florian Zeller under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Florian Zeller was born in 1979.

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