Balthasar's Odyssey

Amin Maalouf

translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Vintage 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
Balthasar's Odyssey (Le PĂ©riple de Baldassare, 2000) tells the story of a Levantine dealer in antiques and old books, caught up in the fears and speculations around the year 1666. Despite his skepticism about the 'Year of the Beast', when Balthasar finds and then immediately loses the mysterious book The Hundredth Name, rumoured to explain the future, he sets forth to find it again.

From his home town of Gibelet on the Lebanon coast, Balthasar's travels first take him to Constantinople. He becomes involved with Marta, who is seeking a statement that the husband who abandoned her is dead so she can be free of his relatives. They travel to Smyrna, where they are caught up in the enthusiasm surrounding the Jewish messiah Sabbatai. And then Balthasar is whisked across the Mediterranean, first to Genoa and then as far as London, where he survives the Great Fire.

This story is told in the form of Balthasar's diaries — in four volumes, since he keeps having to depart in a hurry, involuntarily or under restraint, leaving his previous notebook behind. Maalouf manages the restriction of the narrative to Balthasar's perspective convincingly, offering a view of the seventeenth century Mediterranean world that is contemporary but at the same time makes sense to the reader.

Balthasar's Odyssey is an easy enough read, but it lacks driving force. The prophecies and mysteries are of interest for their effects on people rather than for their own sake and provide neither tension nor plot progression: Balthasar's skepticism wavers, but the reader's never does. The subplots — the romantic connection with Marta, curiosity about Sabbatai's fate, a liaison with a London barmaid — are involving, but are also disjoint, with the secondary characters coming and going and never really emerging as independent figures.

June 2005

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%T Balthasar's Odyssey
%A Maalouf, Amin
%M French
%F Bray, Barbara
%I Vintage
%D 2003
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0099452081
%P 391pp