Between two cultures

The Fascination of Evil

By Florian Zeller

Pushkin Press, 2006,

153 pages, $12.95 U.S.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

By Laila Lalami

Harcourt Book, 2005

188 pages, $13 U.S.

With the Booker Prize awarded last week to Turkish author Orhan Pamuk for his book Istanbul: Memories and the City that explores Islamic and Christian tensions in the city that has always been caught between the two, it is fitting to explore two recent novels that firmly wedge themselves between the very same religious and cultural divides.

The Fascination of Evil , Florian Zeller’s third novel, is described as “diabolically cunning” and for once a book’s back flap testimonial lives up to its trumpeting.

Zeller is not yet 30 but is already a literary tour de force in his native France. A playwright, university lecturer and contributor to Paris-Match and Vogue , Zeller has produced an ostensibly simple small novel that manages to trip not only its characters but its readers with its changeling sensibility.

An exploration of the West’s ignorantly perplexed attitude to Islam, Fascination of Evil is four days in the life of a young, talented French author blessed with literary and physical brilliance yet still in emotional isolation, reeling from his parents’ death five years previous. The author, who remains nameless throughout the novel, has travelled to Cairo along with a second French author diametrically unblessed with looks or grace to take part in that painful authorial exercise, the writer’s festival.

Suffering by day through ridiculous moderator questions in inane forums (“In France, are young writers younger than those who write and are older than the young ones?”) the two writers along with unwitting embassy attaches cruise Cairo’s denizens nightly trying to recreate Flaubert’s sexual extravagances.

But this is not the 1800s, it’s 2000 and something and Islam, in response to western narcissism, has thickened its sexual taboos to such an extent the men, both Western and Muslim, are seethingly disappointed. Undercurrents of jealousy and envy spew over in a tipping point seduction scene when a nuanced Muslim femme attache chooses the French pretty boy.

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