Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Balthasar's Odyssey - Amin Maalouf

Year 1666 is speculated as the "year of the beast". Jews, Christians and Muslims have their own theories and fears about the imminent end of the world. However, one of the answer seems to be in the mysterious book titled " The hundredth name", which legends says reveals the name of the GOD unknown to people, that can save the humankind from the imminent apocalypse. Balthasar Embriaso, 40 year old widower of Genovan origin, a curios and books dealer at Lavantine town of Gibelet, takes us through a journey for over an year in pursuit of the book. Balthasar, had the book for a brief period before being forced to sell the same to the emissary of the King of France. Though Balthasar doubts the authenticity of the book, every one who laid hand on this book , seems to have gone through some mysterious fates. Idriss, the old man who handed over the book to him, was found dead the next day. The emissary who took the book to Constantinople with him was ship-wrecked. But that did not stop him from chasing the book. The eventful journey, thus begun from Gibelet , to Tripoli , Allepo, Constantinople, Genova , Lisbon, London and France before he come back to Genova.
Balthasar document his experiences and his feelings in his note books ( 4 journals abandoned at various places) and through this he narrates the happening of the eventful year. He befriends various people during his journey and these form the various sub-plots of the book. There are Jews, captains of the ship, a prince from Persia , a Genovan aristocrat, a lady shop owner in London , each with their on views and idea adding to the story of the end of the world.
Martha, a village lady from Gibelet, whose husband is at large since their wedding joins them in the journey. Balthasar, being forced to introduce her as his wife ( a clever ploy by his nephews?) , slowly gets attracted to her. His effort to end her misery by obtaining the document which sets her free to marry him takes a beating after they find her husband. He is crest fallen and was deported to Genova leaving the nephews and his assistant at Smyrna. His efforts to locate the book materialises at London, but every time he opens the book to read, his health deteriorates and he become temporarily blind. The misfortune did not end, as London is now under fire. As the city streets are burning, Balthasar escapes from London, and comes back to Genovo, towards the end of the year. Though the World did not end, 1667 brings a new beginning to the life of Balthasar after an eventful year. He will start a new life in his ancestral city.
The novel is about his quest to retrieve the book, as he travels from place to places on the Mediterranean cost and to places as far as London and France, over a period of 16 months. Interesting read, with many sub-stories and incidents to spice up the journey. There are many characters portrayed in this book, who come in with their own religious views ( some extreme and some moderate and intelligent) and vanishes without any trace. There are other important characters, like his nephews and Martha, who too are given a very odd treatment in the book. Barring that, he maintain the interest of the reader through out the journey. Notwithstanding , few narrative shortcoming, this book is very good and a captivating read.
Balthasar's Odyssey
Amin Maalouf ( translated by Barbara Bray)
Vintage Books
391 Pages
Further read : NY Times , Guardian

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