Idris the Ingénu

Galen Strawson

According to the traditions of the Prophet reported by Al Bukhari, Muhammad once declared that those who would be most severely punished on the Day of Judgment were the ‘portrayers’ (al musawwirun), the painters or sculptors. No doubt he was principally concerned to condemn the evil of idolatry, like Moses before him and many after him. But Islamic religious art has ever since avoided all representation of living creatures, and above all of people. Fashioning the human form is strictly God’s business, and popular belief in the power and maleficence of images has remained strong in many Islamic cultures.

The power of the image. This looks like a subject worthy of Michel Tournier the philosopher novelist, the delicate idea-cruncher, the prestidigitator of the hypercathected concept. It looks like something that deserves to be run carefully through his romanesque (or novel-producing) analytical machine. And it provides the central, heavily signposted theme of La Goutte d’Or, first published in France in 1985 and now translated by Barbara Wright under the accurate but ill-judged title of The Golden Droplet (La Goutte d’Or is a place in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris, as well as a drop of gold). This is a gently juvenile book, a little sweet but not uncharming, hammy and didactic by turns, mixing fairy-tale with ethnological monograph, in which Tournier recounts the Iconic and Imaginary Adventures of Idris the Ingénu, a beardless shepherd boy from the oasis settlement of Tabelbela in the Algerian south.

It begins with a photograph. Idris is out with his flock in the semi-desert. A photographer and his archetypically blonde model pass in a Land Rover after canning some louche poses in a palm grove. ‘Clic-clac,’ she has the picturesque boy on film. He asks for the photograph, and she promises to send it to him from Paris. This is the first image of Idris. His fate is now up and running.

The photograph never comes. After some months the teasing unofficial postman from Beni Abbes pretends he has it after all. Idris tears open the letter – a king-sized postcard of a donkey. Uproarious laughter from the crowd. This is the second image of Idris.

Uncle Mogadem is the only person in Tabelbela who possesses a photograph – himself as a soldier. His view is simple. You shouldn’t let photographs get away, but they are quite safe if you keep an eye on them. Idris accordingly decides to pursue his image to Paris. He sets off with next to nothing, save for a talismanic jewel he has found in the sand, a drop of pure gold, a ‘gri-gri’ lost by a dancer. Tournier charges this object with significance, employing a sharp distinction between sign and image. The drop of gold is not an image of anything. It is pure sign, absolute form. It has no other meaning than itself. It is the antidote to imagery, and, as such, the central image (in the loosest sense) and title object of the book.

Beni Abbes is the first stop. Once there, Idris accidentally visits the Sahara Museum, in which his own family’s way of life – ‘The Alimentary Area of the Saharan Habitat’ – is faithfully mocked up. He sees himself – unruly black hair, anxious face – faintly reflected in the glass display cases. He is an evanescent exhibit. And this is the third image of Idris. (Deep iconic irony; the fictionalising and cheapening force of the image at work in one’s own heart and hearth; reminiscent of the South Sea islanders watching their own ‘Disappearing World’ on video.)

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