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The Arab as a Snapshot in the French Mind : THE GOLDEN DROPLET by Michel Tournier; translated by Barbara Wright (Doubleday: $16.95; 206 pp.)

December 27, 1987|Sara Melzer | Melzer is a UCLA professor of French literature. and

"Art and Philosophy often are in strife,/though meant each other's aid, like man and wife." This rewrite of Pope's famous couplet about wit and judgment captures the major problem of leading Michel Tournier's most recent philosophical novel. The philosophical novel is a particularly difficult genre because of the built-in tension between philosophy and art. Philosophy often tends to dominate, emptying the characters of their life-blood and reducing art to the mere vehicle for the transportation of its ideas. There is, nevertheless, a venerable tradition of successful marriages between the novel and philosophy--one has only to think of Diderot, Dostoevsky, Gide, Mann and Milan Kundera, to name but a few. And indeed the early novels of Tournier, one of the most important authors of contemporary France, can figure on this abbreviated list. "Friday," "The Ogre," and "The Four Wise Men," Tournier's early works, are masterful philosophical novels that rewrite the myths and stories of our cultural heritage.

But in Tournier's most recent novel, translated into English as "The Golden Droplet," the marriage is not quite so happy. One feels the heavy hand of the author manipulating his marionettelike characters to illustrate the ideas he wants to pound into our heads. The novel is structured around Tournier's philosophical reflections on the power of the image. "An image is possessed of a force for evil. It isn't the faithful devoted servant you'd like it to be. It takes on all the appearances of a servant, yes, but in actual fact, it's crafty, lying and imperious. Out of the depths of its evil nature it does all it can to reduce you to slavery." And the "civilized" Western world of France, sophisticated in its use and manipulation of the image, appropriates the image of the "other" (the Arab) in order to dominate it.

The story is set in motion when the world of a young Berber shepherd, Idris, is penetrated by a beautiful blond woman from Paris who is touring the Sahara in a Land-Rover. She takes a picture of him and promises to send him a copy of the photo from Paris. Idris 1650811759as if it has stolen his identity from him. Having waited in vain many months for the photo, he finally resolves to leave his desert oasis to travel in France to recover his lost image. But before embarking on his quest for the photo/self-identity, he discovers in the sand a golden droplet, a sign of his purity, which predictably enough is stolen from him by a prostitute in Marseille.

Since Idris has all the depth of cardboard as he moves from place to place and incident to incident in his quest, there is nothing in his character to determine his reason for being here rather than there. The major motivating force in the novel comes from the author's desire to create a sequence of events which become the servants of his own image of things, his ideological perspective. In France, Idris meets a sham artist who asks him to pose before an artificially painted backdrop of the Sahara in order to construct the French view of Arab reality. Idris does not exist as a real person for this artist, but as an object to be manipulated for his own ends. The artist proclaims imperialistically, "I am a creator. I re-create the Sahara in my studio, and at the same time I re-create you."

Our innocent Idris is then later seduced into becoming the model for life-size dolls of Arabs. His body is inserted in liquid resin to form the mold for store mannequins made in his image. The profusion of Idrises populating the display windows of Paris transforms his being into a vulgar commodity of corrupt, "civilized" society. The author bombards us from all angles. Embedded in the story are two parables that demonstrate the evil power of the image, "Barbarossa or the King's Portrait" and "The Blonde Queen."

A hybrid text, "The Golden Droplet," ends up being satisfying neither as philosophy nor as novel. The theme that Tournier discusses is certainly a fascinating one, but his treatment of it does not have the depth to satisfy anyone with real philosophic interests. For those wishing to explore more seriously these issues, I would suggest Edward Said's book "Orientalism." If, however, one wishes to read novels about this same question, I would recommend any of Tournier's earlier novels mentioned above.

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