A clever picaresque from Maalouf (In the Name of Identity, 2001, etc.) takes us from the Middle East across all of Europe in search of an enchanted book.
In 1665, much of the Christian world became obsessed with the notion that the three last digits of the upcoming year corresponded exactly to the Sign of the Beast (666) as recorded in the Book of the Apocalypse. In the Middle East, then as always a crossroads of diverse cultures and religions, this fear became intertwined with a widespread belief that an erudite Muslim had discovered the 100th name of God (the Koran gives 99) and that whoever learned it would become immortal and invincible. The problem was that no one could find the book that the man had written. Balthasar Embriaco, a bookseller in the Levantine town of Gibelet, had heard all these rumors for years, but he put little store in tales of the end of the world and frankly doubted that the book ever existed—until a local beggar gives him a copy of it. Before he can make up his mind about its authenticity, however, an envoy of the French king buys it from him for an astounding sum and disappears. Balthasar’s scholarly nephew Jaber is horrified that his uncle has let this treasure escape and convinces him to pursue the envoy and retrieve the book. Reluctantly, Balthasar agrees to journey to Constantinople in the search, but he discovers after an arduous journey that the envoy died en route, and that the book has gone missing. Clearly, something is afoot, and so Balthasar and his entourage continue their search, compared to which the search for the Maltese Falcon was a scavenger hunt. Does he find it? Of course. Are the prophecies true? Well, let’s just say that the world didn’t end in 1666.
Splendid, sophisticated fun: Maalouf has a fine grasp of history and a natural’s gift for narrative and adventure.