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The Fascination of Evil

The Fascination of Evil

by Florian Zeller, Sue Dyson (Translator)

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When the narrator receives an invitation to visit Egypt as the guest of the French Embassy in Cairo, he anticipates a boring week of literary discussions and official dinners. He certainly does not foresee the extraordinary events that will ultimately lead to murder. From the start, his fellow author—Martin Millet—seems determined to stir up the


When the narrator receives an invitation to visit Egypt as the guest of the French Embassy in Cairo, he anticipates a boring week of literary discussions and official dinners. He certainly does not foresee the extraordinary events that will ultimately lead to murder. From the start, his fellow author—Martin Millet—seems determined to stir up the tensions that underlie the politeness of Egyptian society. He offends Islamic sensibilities with his views on art and the novel, and worse: his entire stay degenerates into an obsessive search for an Egyptian woman willing to have sex with him. The atmosphere is one of mutual mistrust, bordering on open dislike, not just between the Muslim world and the West, but also between the two authors. As the narrator finds himself dragged ever deeper into Millet's obsessions, he begins not only to fear for his own and Millet's safety, but for the future of Western civilisation. When Millet disappears, he inevitably fears the worst...

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"One of the hottest literary talents in France." - Chris Schuler, Independent

"An intellectual prodigy." - Observer

"A precocious literary success ... paying homage to the author's first literary hero, Milan Kundera." - New Statesman

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Steerforth Press
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4.80(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Fascination of Evil

By Florian Zeller, Sue Dyson

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2006 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-906548-04-9



As the alarm clock rang, I wished I'd never agreed to this trip. It was still dark, and I had hardly slept at all. I should have gone to bed earlier the previous evening, I told myself. But that wasn't my style. And besides, I could always sleep on the plane.

I got up to make myself some coffee. I looked out of the kitchen window. It was five am, but Paris hadn't woken up yet. Nor had Jeanne. Once I was dressed, I went and watched her sleeping. I don't know why, but I've always found her at her most beautiful in the morning, her body like a refuge against the dawn's cold. I wrote her a note, telling her I was going to miss her. Sometimes, a week is a very long time. And besides, I was afraid I'd never see her again. It's ridiculous, I agree, but that's how it was: since the death of my parents, I could no longer ignore the fact that anything could happen at any moment. I would even say that, in a certain way, I was constantly on the lookout for my own death. By telling her I would miss her, it seems to me that I was in reality trying to say farewell to her. In fact I was a little upset, but in an excessive and unpleasant way. It hadn't done me any favours, waking up so early. After all, it was only a trip lasting a few days. I tore up the note and threw it into the bin, then closed my suitcase.

The French Embassy in Egypt had invited me to Cairo to give a talk as part of a sort of book fair. On the telephone, the cultural attaché had informed me that Martin Millet would be making the journey with me. (Millet was a quite famous Swiss author, one of whose books I had read a year before: I vaguely recalled a succession of violent, sometimes monstrous fantasies, whose ambition was to describe a market society's sexual misery and in passing, I think, his own.) I received my plane ticket in the post, along with my instructions. In the event, my job was to talk a little on the theme of the 'new French Romantic generation' and, the rest of the time, to take advantage of my stay. In the taxi taking me to Roissy, I told myself that apart from this nocturnal awakening, the whole thing promised to be rather pleasant, and that I must lose this habit of always feeling sorry for myself when I woke up.

A few days earlier, an Egyptian aeroplane had gone down in the Red Sea. It had taken off from Sharm el-Sheikh; all the passengers had perished in the catastrophe. For the most part they were French and were returning home after a week's holiday. The precise reasons for this accident were still not yet known. At first, thoughts had turned to an attack. Then the two black boxes had been retrieved, with the aid of robots able to work at depths in excess of one thousand metres. According to what I'd read the previous day, the recordings ruled out the terrorist hypothesis. So it must have been a 'classic accident'; this was a real relief to (almost) everybody.

In a gesture of solidarity the imam of the mosque, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Saleh, had declared that this tragedy "had not only affected the families of the victims, but all Egyptians". It is true that it didn't suit them much either. This type of accident generally brings about a slump in tourism, and Egypt — which had been in economic crisis for several years — could really do without that. All the more so, since Sharm el-Sheikh is a seaside resort greatly prized by westerners. This is borne out by the proliferation of modern hotels, casinos, tourist villages and shopping centres that have turned the town, with its neon signs, into a sort of Las Vegas of the East.

Travel agencies generally offer two types of holiday in Egypt. The first (which all the accident victims had opted for) takes place on the shores of the Red Sea. The Ras Mohammed reserve offers a diving site that ranks among the seven most beautiful in the world: the slopes of Shark Reef. The interest of this trip can be pretty much summed up as that: watching a multitude of multi-coloured tropical fish. The second is an itinerary within the "Egypt of the Pharaohs"; generally, it consists of a Nile cruise. In a period of ten days or so, the tourist visits Cairo (for its museum and its pyramids), Luxor (for its different temples and the Valley of the Kings) and finally Aswan (for its famous dam and the temple at Abu Simbel) ... This second formula enjoyed enormous success until one morning in November 1997, when a group of Islamic terrorists massacred all the tourists in the Temple of Hatshepsut, at Luxor — a magnificent spot, incidentally.

Over the previous few years, I had travelled quite a lot in Muslim countries, notably in the Middle East. My encounter with a Jordanian woman had given me a taste for the region. On the other hand, I had only visited Egypt once. It was in 1998, with my parents. Like a lot of tourists, we had taken advantage of the very favourable prices offered by the travel agencies after the attacks at Luxor. At that time, since demand had fallen dramatically, you could easily take a cruise on the Nile for less than two thousand francs. What's more, by dropping prices drastically in this way, the country managed little by little to recover from the consequences of the massacre. But in order to offer these kinds of prices, I told myself that morning as I arrived at Roissy, there had to be savings made somewhere, in other words a cut in variable costs, among them not only the quality of service, but security. Now, everything suggested that the Sharm el-Sheikh accident had been due to technical failure, and more precisely to an inability to control the plane. In other words, this air disaster was an indirect consequence of the Islamic killings. In this respect, the imam at the mosque was indeed right: this tragedy didn't just affect the families of the victims.

It was still dark when the taxi dropped me off at the airport. I told myself that it wasn't very clever to dwell on all this just before getting on an aeroplane. I was just frightening myself for no good reason. It was better to think about positive things. But which ones? One accident never happens immediately after another, it's a well-known fact. In this respect, it was the ideal moment to leave for Egypt. Basically, nothing could happen to me. That's what I told myself for reassurance.

I went off to buy a few newspapers before heading for the check-in desk. I'd been asked to arrive two hours early. Since September 11th, the checks had become interminable. Of course I knew that Egypt was a predominantly Muslim country, but I was nonetheless surprised to find that I was almost the only person in the queue not wearing a djellaba. I swallowed hard. All the women were veiled. In this day and age it's regrettable, djellabas, veils and aeroplanes give you funny ideas.

Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I started. I turned around: it was Martin Millet. I had seen a photo of him, so I had already noted the slightly odd shape of his face, his very clear resemblance to a pet animal that's been run over, but I had imagined him as being stronger and taller. He was aged about thirty. We shook hands. He seemed quite pleased to be there. All smiles. This was the first time he'd been to Egypt. And undoubtedly the last. But he didn't know that yet.

"So," he asked with an enthusiasm that seemed exaggerated to me, "have you been there before?"

"Once, yes."


In reality, I entirely associated this country with my parents, since it was with them I'd gone there — our last trip before their accident. But I had promised myself I would be strong and not lapse into melancholy: hve years had already passed, and I couldn't keep revisiting their deaths for ever. I chose to say that I didn't remember the precise details — a fact which wasn't entirely untrue.

"It's rather a pity we can't visit the south. People tell me Luxor's the place you really have to see ..."

It's true that with the planned talks, it was difficult to see us leaving Cairo. Or perhaps just for a day. I had been told that the library at Alexandria, for example, was a 'must see'. But nothing makes one less inclined to go and see something than when that thing is a 'must see'. Things that you 'must see' are generally of only limited interest. By way of example, in Paris the Arc de Triomphe is a 'must see'.

"Yeah," I replied then, voicing my thoughts ...

Basically, staying in Cairo didn't bother me. For me, it's perhaps the best way to understand a country: walking through the capital city with no specific goal. As I recalled, Cairo was a gigantic city, exhausting and dusty, but which gave off a rather fantastic energy. I had initially planned to go to the Orthodox monastery of Saint Catherine, in Sinai, but after consulting a map, I gave up the idea. To do the return trip in a day, I would have had to take an internal flight with a dodgy company And since Sharm el-Sheikh, I didn't really fancy that. After all, I'd be just as well off in the hotel swimming pool in Cairo.

It took me a while to understand why the majority of the passengers didn't look like Egyptians: the plane hrst made a stop in Cairo, as it did once every week, before setting off again for Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. "It's just our luck," Martin said. All these folk were in reality pilgrims, heading for Mecca. Then I remembered that each year dozens, sometimes hundreds of them died, trampled to death in the enlightened crowd. But travelling by plane under these conditions is an interesting experience: for example, it enables you with hindsight to appreciate the serenity of your daily life.

Martin was sitting on my right. He was already trying to work the little screen set into the back of the seat in front. To my left, a man was complaining to an air hostess because his wife, who was veiled from head to foot, was not sitting on his right (that is to say, in my seat); he said that he would not tolerate having a man sitting next to her. There was something rather contradictory about taking a plane and then raging against the possibility of having someone next to you. They should have suggested he buy a private plane. This man had very beautiful eyes. Long lashes that gave him a delicate, even feminine air. What did he find so fearsome? Did he really doubt his power over her to that extent? The hostess didn't look surprised by his reaction. She was a professional. She said that she understood, even though — I am convinced — she didn't understand any better than I did. "We have to understand," her eyes seemed to be trying to tell me, "it's cultural. He would see it as an insult if a guy was seated next to his wife ..."

"An insult to what?" I could have asked (but I had no desire to complicate the situation).

"To her modesty," would have been the reply.

"And the woman in question would have to be a potential object of desire," Martin then whispered in my ear. Which was manifestly not the case: she looked rather like a plump, indistinct mass. You could tell that even through her veil. The man who sat next to her, he assured me, wouldn't even have looked at her. But fine, if it was cultural ... So everyone had to change places so that modesty could be preserved. And finally the plane could take off.

Martin fell asleep quite quickly. As for me, a series of suspicious noises kept me on edge. I had Sharm el-Sheikh in my head, as well as those words by Cyrano about his nose: "It's like the Red Sea when it bleeds!" To change my thoughts, I read the newspapers I'd bought at the airport. Libération led on Alain Juppé's conviction. An eighteen-month suspended sentence, ten years' ineligibility, and all this for involvement in secret financial deals. Clearly this was the important information of the day. The rest was a little more conventional: some guy had got himself blown up in Iraq, Israel had retaliated in Bethlehem and Sharon declared that the 'security cordon' was more necessary than ever ... By a sort of irony, the Figaro Magazine's cover featured The strange Tariq Ramadan. In the last few weeks, he had been seen a great deal during the media chaos provoked by the law on secularism. Endowed with an undeniable seductive power, this populist extremist's declared ambition was to convert Europe to Islam. Reading this article, I learned that he was the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brothers, an organisation actually created in Egypt, and that it could justly be regarded as the ideological cradle of modern Islamism. Then I remembered a recent broadcast, during which Ramadan had attempted to justify the wearing of the veil by talking about this famous 'modesty'. A philosopher facing him had calmly replied: "In that case, why don't men wear the veil? Is a woman's face more immodest than a man's?"

I put down the papers. I closed my eyes for a moment, but couldn't get to sleep. For a while now, I'd been tortured by interminable periods of sleeplessness, and I couldn't seem to recover. An air hostess came down the aisle to offer us cool drinks. She spoke loudly, in an unpleasant voice, and Martin woke up. He rubbed his face, as if he had slept for three thousand nights on the trot. I ordered an apple juice.

"I can't stand women with loud voices," he grumbled once she had moved away.

The man on my left certainly wasn't going to contradict him.

"Yes, but she's pretty."

Martin turned round.

"Yeah. Not bad. Despite the uniform."

"Actually, I generally find air hostesses rather exciting, with their uniforms."

"You think so?"

I then thought back to an interview the singer Prince had given in a women's magazine: they'd asked him what his favourite dish was, and he'd replied: air hostesses. I don't know why, but that stuck with me, and I've never forgotten that answer, to the point that I think of it every time I get on a plane. Are they really girls of easy virtue? It's an important question. To this was added what I'd been told about the gigantic orgies that took place during stopovers among the members of the crew. I had no idea if it was a myth, but each time a steward passed me in the corridor, I couldn't help saying to myself: you sly devil, you're going to have yourself a good time ... And similarly, each time I encountered a hostess, I had the definite feeling that I was dealing with a whore ...

"Do you live with anyone?" I asked him.

"Yeah ... It's kind of complicated."

"It's always complicated."

"I don't doubt it."

"She's not an air hostess, is she?"

He gave me a sad smile and didn't answer, I felt a bit bloody stupid. Then, after a moment's silence, he explained to me that he no longer believed in the notion of the 'couple', As he saw it, it was a structure for dominating the other person, built from lies, and one which no longer had any place, He preferred the notion of a 'favourite person', which allowed one more freedom and which was more honest, He frowned as he explained this to me, as if it were a very personal concept, whereas the dissolution of the married couple is on the contrary one of the West's most serious tendencies.

Two broad aisles ran the length of the Boeing, separating three rows of seats; each passenger had a little screen, connected to a programme of films, games and music, We had been talking for almost an hour, He explained to me that he had left Switzerland five years previously and settled in Paris, Deep down, I was quite pleased not to be going on my own, And Martin seemed rather interesting. Since the start, he had had Flaubert's Correspondence on his knees — one of my favourite books, I told him that it was strange to be setting off for Egypt with this big book and, as I said this, I remembered that there were a few letters regarding his journey to the East, notably a few letters written in Egypt, He confirmed this enthusiastically, It was precisely because of these letters that he had brought the whole volume, He wanted to read them in their original setting,

"The really funny thing," he continued, "is that when he arrives in Cairo, his first letters are to his mother, He describes what he sees to her, but in reality he's describing what she would like to see, It's just like a postcard, Wait, I'll find the bit for you ..."


Excerpted from The Fascination of Evil by Florian Zeller, Sue Dyson. Copyright © 2006 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Florian Zeller (born in 1979) is a critically acclaimed French novelist and playwright, the recipient of numerous literary awards, a university lecturer at the prestigious Sciences-Po in Paris, and a journalist for Paris Match, Vogueand Vol de Nuit. For his first novel Artificial Snow he received the Hachette Foundation Literary Prize, the Writing Talent Award from the Jean-Luc Lagardère Foundation and the New Writer Award from the Prince Pierre of Monaco Foundation.His third novel The Fascination of Evil, received the Prix Interallie, and he has been awarded the Prix Jeune Theatre de l'Academie Francaise for his plays. He lives in Paris with his wife, the model, actress and sculptor Marine Delterme. His novels Artificial Snow (Neiges Artificielles), Lovers or Something Like It (Les amants du n importe quoi), Julien Parme and The Fascination of Evil (La fascination du pire) are all available from Pushkin Press.

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