In this allusive and allegorical tale, a French intelligence officer chases an unlikely quarry across continents.
Assem Graieb—his pseudonym redolent of Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison—is “a killer for the Republic, constantly on the hunt for new targets.” His travels have taken him from France to Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and now he’s after an American, “a solid guy” who has gotten caught up in the drug trade out of Afghanistan, his mission to assess and then eliminate. Along the way, he falls in with Mariam, an archaeologist who hides an ancient statue in his luggage, the safest hiding place she can think of. The statue, of an ancient deity, is just a step ahead of being erased from history by the idolatry-despising foot soldiers of the Islamic State group, and Sullivan Sicoh, the object of Assem’s hunt, wouldn’t hesitate to put it on the market alongside his other wares. They have their rationale, and so does Mariam, and so does Assem. The story would be a terse procedural if confined to this century, but Prix Goncourt winner Gaudé complicates it with interspersed tales of other warriors across the centuries, from Hannibal to Ulysses S. Grant and Haile Selassie (“He is just a rat fleeing from the eyes of the Italian eagle that wants to devour him”), none of them strangers to desperate fights. Gaudé’s purpose in blending these characters from many times and places is not immediately evident, but he writes with a philosophical eye to history and the constant, unerring habit of time to want to obliterate all the accomplishments of our kind: “And he knows in that instant,” Gaudé writes, poetically, “that everything has truly been erased, that he has managed to escape from who he was."
As a story, Gaudé’s latest is a modest accomplishment itself, but it is rich in philosophical possibilities that make it memorable.