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.)

Two hundred and forty kilometres north in Béchar, Idris gets casual work in a photographer’s studio. This minor figure is a major fantasist, and sets up a mirror in which Idris appears to himself against a crude backdrop depicting Paree-by-Night (fourth image). Then on the bus to Oran an old woman with a wandering mind mistakes Idris for her dead son Ismail. She takes him off to visit the boy’s grave, which sports a photograph in which Idris sees something like himself (possible fifth image?). He goes straight on to a photographic booth for passport photographs. When they drop into the rack he appears bearded (fifth image from a magically malfunctioning machine: Idris as he will be? Ismail as he would have been?). Into his passport goes the bearded man.

Officials fail to notice any dissimilarity, but a friendly young goldsmith on the ferry to Marseille does notice, and suggests that Idris grow a beard. Idris objects: ‘It isn’t up to me to look like my photo. It’s my photo that ought to look like me.’ But the goldsmith is unimpressed. ‘Your experience already proves that it’s the other way round. An image ... is crafty, lying and imperious.’ He then goes on to deprive the goutte d’or of its status as pure sign. It is the bulla aurea worn by Roman freeborn children, which they abandoned on reaching adulthood. And so it is that in Marseille Idris duly loses his virginity to a large fake-blonde prostitute in exchange for the jewel, mimicking the Roman rite of passage into virility, a willing victim of the Tournierian passion for symbolic counterpoint.

Stunned by metropolitan France, he stares up at crafty, lying images – holiday posters advertising paradise in the form of Saharan oases with kidney-shaped swimming-pools and archetypical blondes. And then moves on to Paris – to an immigrant workers’ hostel in the Rue Myrha near the Goutte d’Or, and a succession of menial jobs. Working as a street-sweeper he is temporarily hired to play a street-sweeper, in a film directed by Achille Mage (sixth image: the fictional intussusception of the real). At this point a 200 franc note changes hands, giving the novel a terminus a quo of 1983, although it must in fact be set in 1973 or at the latest early 1974 – Roissy Airport (opened in 1974) is not yet open, and the Paris RER (Réseau Express Régional, opened in 1977) some years off.

Mage (image, magicien, roi mage) is a Tournierian collector of young boys, a kind and witty pederast, a plump and squinty quoter of poets, a pink-shirted Sartre lookalike. He hires Idris as official camel-tender for his new soft drinks commercial for ‘Palm Grove’, set in a cardboard Sahara. But when the film is done the camel has to be disposed of. There follows a dreamy photogenic sequence through the Paris of Le Ballon Rouge and Les Quatre Cent Coups. Idris leads the clapped-out camel across the city to an abattoir, and to unexpected employment in the zoo.

The seventh and eighth images occur in quick succession. Idris is in a café reading a comic book. He is very, very tired. And by now the comic book is about himself in the desert and the first image. The photographer and the blonde drive up as before. ‘Clic-clac,’ she goes. And there he is himself (seventh image, fictional loop). He speaks, and a word-filled bubble comes out of his mouth.

The Land Rover drives off. But there is the blonde at the bar. Idris goes over to rescue her from her nefarious employer, but she is curiously unwilling to be rescued. This leads to a scuffle, which leads to fingerprinting and mugshots down at the police station (eighth image).

Buying dungarees in M. Bonami’s clothes shop, Idris meets Etienne Milan, another emotional victim of images, and the most perfectly narcissistic version to date of the central Tournierian figure, the obsessional child-fancier and consumer of youth – the Ogre of Kaltenborn in The Erl King (1970), Uncle Alexandre in Gemini (1975), Herod in The Four Wise Men (1980), Gilles de Retz in Gilles and Jeanne (1983). Milan is a photographer, born in 1950. He collects Sixties shop-window dummies of young boys, repainting their hard, faintly smiling faces, restoring their eyelashes, and photographing them at play – these ‘little men’ – in the countryside. ‘They’re me,’ writes Tournier on Milan’s behalf, launching into some agreeably elaborate speculations on the differences between dummies and statues.

But Idris is already moving on towards his final imaginary duplications, his ultimate reproductive destiny. Bonami wants some new dummies with a North African air. And so he engages Idris to participate in a new transgression of the Islamic prohibition on representation of the human form. Suitably posed in a tank, Idris is immersed up to his nose in a flood of slimy quick-setting alginate. He is left as long as possible, then slowly calved, extracted with ‘terribly farting, sucking and swallowing noises’ (ninth image). A print of his face is taken in similar fashion – he holds his breath and loses his eyelashes.

Bonami is jubilant: ‘it was the birth of a child! And in less than a month there’ll be about twenty Idrises, all as alike as twin brothers, peopling my windows and counters.’ He proposes that Idris should mimic the dummies, standing stiff in the shop-window, then making a few jerky movements (tenth image: the real feigning the fake).

But the uniquely imitable Idris is by this time exhausted. He is suffering from acute mimesis, eidorrhoea, the anxiety of images. Another Tournier character has been conducted to symbolic extremity. And now Tournier does what he so often does. He counterbalances, satisfying his powerful and almost childish desire for a symmetry of opposites, pursuing a fictional instinct according to which each key emotional or obsessional element must be in some way negatively matched, illuminated by structural inversion. Idris accordingly takes up with the older immigrants in the hostel, a group defined by their fidelity to the radio as opposed to the television. They ‘initiate him into the invisible, crackling world of the ionosphere’ (Tournier once worked in radio). He comes to understand ‘that a defence against the maleficent power of the image, which seduces the eye, may be found in the acoustic sign, which alerts the ear.’ He falls in love with the voice of the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum, and, moving on to the more impersonal abstraction of the written sign, takes up calligraphy under the guidance of a master. ‘Evening after evening, Idris thus made his way towards recovery,’ annulling the danger of imaginary reality (and the reality of imaginary danger) by exemplary concentration on the arbitrary and image-free nature of the written and spoken sign. The book moves on towards its final contrivance – a combobulated tying up of ends, a major Tournierian theme-jam provoked by a refractory pneumatic drill in the Place Vendôme.

This sort of thematic complexity may seem impressive when set out. But it has no intrinsic literary worth – consider, for example, the uninterestingly complex structure of D. M. Thomas’s novel Ararat, which operates at seven different levels of fictional reality – and it is fatally easy to arrange. Here it is well done in parts. But it allows Tournier to give a series of highly disparate set-pieces a false appearance of unity and development. The same could be said of his book Friday (1967), although it is a much more successful work. There is no real narrative movement in La Goutte d’Or, no real unfolding of character. It seems in the end a mechanically concatenated tale, beady-eyed but weakly dimpled. Idris’s ingenuousness may charm, but it is essentially inert, uninflected, a mere effigy of innocence.

Monsieur Mage compares Idris with Saint Exupéry’s Petit Prince, who is clearly a source of inspiration. But the comparison which is likely to strike many – to the great disadvantage of La Goutte d’Or, despite the fact that its purposes are quite different – is with Romain Gary’s novel about a young Arab in Paris, La Vie devant soi, a novel of dazzlingly successful sentimentality and intensely artfully calculated colloquial simplicity, published under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1975: a book which would be very hard to translate.

La Goutte d’Or has also suffered in translation. Barbara Wright is for the most part devoutly accurate, if very stiff. She has even corrected a supposed error (Idris’s mother is said to be a widow, but he is also said to have plural parents – presumably ses parents here means ‘his relations’); and eliminated a presumed anachronism (people talking of tobacco in a story set in Tunis in 1534). At one point she drops a whole sentence, and introduces a brand new chapter break in the middle of a chapter. Perhaps she has cleared these changes with Tournier. But there are quite a number of errors, even on casual comparison – straight reversal of sense, gratuitous addition of words, a description absurdly misunderstood, idioms mismatched. It is silly to translate queue by ‘tail’ when it is used to mean penis, and requires some English slang equivalent. And while one can’t really criticise ‘Big Zob’ as a translation of ‘Le grand Zob’ (as in Le Grand Meaulnes), it is again a pity that the meaning of zob – an Arab word for penis now widely used in France – should be entirely lost. (On the other hand, nobody ever thinks of the ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire as having a male-genital-organ-denoting forename.)

Wright at times achieves something of the sublime unnaturalness of instructions written in English on goods made abroad. But this is not the main problem. It is true that Tournier allows himself some pretty routine phrases, especially in two interpolated fables which are presented in a highly conventional and faintly archaic manner (one about a queen’s portrait, the other about a king’s portrait). And it is true that the book is often close to being coy. But Tournier’s French is for the most part strong, clean and exact, here as elsewhere. He knows how not to enfeeble a description with a superfluous dramatic adjective. It is the fine moderation of his prose which gets coarsened in this translation. A dog isn’t allowed simply to move or back aways (’éloigner), it has to ‘slink off’; when he writes of a king’s flight Wright adds an adjective – it becomes a ‘precipitate flight’ – and a cliché; suspendu becomes ‘cascading’; bonheur repeatedly becomes ‘bliss’, heureux becomes ‘blissful’. Much is lost in this seemingly insignificant way.

But perhaps this is no great tragedy. Tournier flags in this readable but only occasionally memorable book. The energies which motivate his best books are not active. The Carefully Researched Details are not sufficiently assimilated. This is not one of his philosophically vivid works of conceptually investigative fiction. It is a neat but artificially animated conceit, pitched oddly between his writing for adults and his writing for children.

Something has failed to happen – perhaps the prolifération autonome de l’oeuvre that so amazed Tournier when he wrote Les Météores (translated as Gemini) and found the book swooping on beyond his (conscious) intentions. And the reason for this seems clear enough. It is simply that his strange imaginative passions – perverse in the world’s eyes – are hardly engaged, and that he has no real gift for fiction independently of them. He is skirting his true subject, the unexhausted legacy of the childhood sketched in ‘L’Enfant Coiffé’, the opening essay of his partly autobiographical Le Vent Paraclet (1977). At the heart of his authorial compulsions lies an ideal (if that is the word) of childhood – childhood as sacred and profane, the most perfect and most terrible moment of human development, beautiful and fearful, intolerably desirable, irrecoverable but unrecoverable from, its comprehension set as a spiritual task; highly sexually charged, but also essentially constituted by solitariness: hence essentially (and literally) self-seeking in its sexuality (for there is, à la limite, no one else): hence narcissistic and auto-erotic at base; and in so far as it extends its sexuality to others at all, pederastic (pederasty here being a seeking for one’s own past self), homo-erotic, twin-seeking, incestuous in inclination. Perhaps the Tournierian child-being (idol, victim) can only hope to understand heterosexuality through the myth of origins recounted by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, according to which those of us who are heterosexuals are descended from four-legged, four-armed hermaphrodites split in two by Zeus, so that ‘each half yearns for the half from which it has been severed.’

I think Tournier has more to say about all this. But if he is to say more he will have to repeat and vary themes already apparent (and fruitfully recurrent) in Friday, The Erl King, Gemini, The Four Wise Men and Gilles and Jeanne. And if he is to go significantly beyond these other books – of which Gemini is in some ways the most remarkable, partly because it is the only one in which Tournier does not operate behind the enabling but defensive screen of some familiar story or myth – he will perhaps have to try to say things which he is not (or no longer) easily able to say. He will have to trigger the process of prolifération autonome, and to know how to give in to it again. Then, perhaps, he will deliver more of that extraordinary part of human truth to which he, at present, appears to have uniquely privileged access.