01 02, 2021

Michael A.Orthofer

A new review on Point Zero by the Complete Review

       Point Zero is a novel with three separate storylines: one centers on Pope Urban II and the consequences of him calling for the first of the Crusades, set between 1095 and 1099; another on an acolyte of Hassan-i Sabbāh's, who undergoes the training to become an Assassin at the fabled stronghold of Alamut, set between 1115 and 1117; and finally the story of two teen lovers in Paris, in the summer and fall of 2015.
       While there are thematic similarities -- each involves historical fact, all involve variations on the question of faith, and they variously pit religion against religion in some way, with the question of love also playing a prominent role -- they otherwise have no overlap. Author Malian essentially constructs his novel from three separate novellas, with these divided into shorter chapters (there are eighteen, and an Epilogue), with the chapters switching back and forth between the different narratives, more or less two chapters at a time (i.e. the first two chapters are set in 1095, the second two in 1115 (more less), etc.). Each storyline progresses chronologically -- but Malian rotates through the different ones in this unusual triple-spiral. (Slightly complicating matters even more are tangential chapters, devoted in their entirety to someone telling yet another story: so, for example, one entire chapter has: 'Professor Moshe tells Akhenaten's Story (Blind Faith)', the grandfather of one of the Parisian lovers recounting it for the girl's boyfriend.)
       This three-in-(not-quite-)one presentation isn't hard to follow, but it is a bit odd. Still, it helps that Malian has some fairly good and colorful stories to tell -- each grounded in some history -- and overall the novel is quite engaging and certainly fast-moving.
       The story of Urban II begins with his 1095 speech at the Council of Clermont, calling on his followers to: "finally liberate the Holy Land from non-believers" -- the seeds of the First Crusade. This opening chapter also introducing a lowly servant, a knight's horse-attendant named Mark who hears the speech and will come to be the unlikely leader of a group of fighters in the Holy Land (though it's a while before he rises from his lowly position, allowing for a somewhat comic secondary story-line in the Urban-chapters -- which then takes a dark turn once Mark finds (or rather is thrust into) his calling).
       Central to the Urban chapters is also: "Urban's faithful adviser and closest friend", Odo -- "so secular that it was surprising how he remained among the confidants of the most powerful religious leader". The Pope and Odo are: "complete opposites", and as the plans for the Crusade proceed, and then the actual fighting begins, there is a constant back and forth between them. Odo has devious plans to incite the (Christian) masses, including the inspired one of commissioning artists to: "paint icons depicting scenes where the Muslim infidels are slaying and plundering Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land", to be hung in churches all over Europe. He admits to Urban II that such things haven't actually been happening -- "Muslims, of course, are behaving aggressively in some places, but mostly to each other, not to Christians" -- but what's a little fake news when you can whip up some rage against those who you want to demonize ? Here and elsewhere Odo's ideas and methods are disturbingly all too familiar from modern politics, a nice touch.
       Urban II has his doubts about the whole crusade idea, finding it hard to reconcile the idea and ideal of the Church with starting: "a large scale war or, even worse approving military killing", but Odo eventually convinces him it's the right thing to do. The sacrifice of lambs led to slaughter -- as it is clear from the start that many Christians will die in this foolhardy undertaking -- also finds justification for them in the false promise of the afterlife that awaits -- so long such a successful means of persuading men to do the worst, and sacrifice their lives; it features similarly prominently in the Hassan-i Sabbāh sections as well, as he too dangles the promise of paradisical afterlife to his followers.
       Odo is an impressive dark figure, and the account of the very un-Christian crusade itself then makes for solidly gripping reading. Urban II's Christian ideals rather easily get pushed aside, though at least there's some debate about these issues. The story also leads to a dramatic denouement -- a neat kind of idea, but one that is a bit difficult to pull off. Those somewhat versed in the history will have been scratching their heads from the beginning regarding the naming of the characters; as it turns out, that's not just part of but the whole point. (It's difficult to judge whether it's better to go into the story ignorant or half-informed -- though I'd suggest you don't Google 'Urban II' before reading the novel; Malian is quite strong on the history, and his account of the First Crusade is good enough that you don't have to compare it with the Wikipedia version as you read along; trust the author.) The payoff isn't that big, but one does appreciate the cleverness of the idea, and it's a solid way of presenting Urban II's story and his struggle with what he charges his followers to do, and that of the First Crusade.
       The storyline around Hassan-i Sabbāh isn't set that much later -- a few decades -- but does not focus directly on Christian-Muslim conflict. And, while Hassan-i Sabbāh plays a role, the cult-leader is not at the center of the story; instead, Malian focuses on young Sayid, nineteen years old when the story begins and living by his wits in Damascus. Sayid eventually comes to Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbāh's legendary retreat, and is taken in as a novitiate, and trained in the ways of the Assassins -- great material, which Malian presents quite excitingly. Ultimately, Sayid also comes to see, however, that there's smoke and mirrors at work here, and that the promise of great rewards in a next life for the ultimate self-sacrifice -- which Assassins dedicate themselves to -- might not be a sure a thing as they've been told. And, of course, there's a girl .....
       Hassan-i Sabbāh is a fanatic, like Urban II/Odo, and for them the great beyond -- God -- is all that matters. So Hassan also denounces Sayid when it becomes clear that the boy has shown earthly weakness:

     Physical love is nothing compared to spiritual love. A man bound by physical love is not fit for acts favorable to God.

       The final storyline, set in contemporary times, also pits mere mortal love against the higher 'ideals' of religion, with young Ali, who has moved to Paris with his family from Syria, falling in love with local girl Liz. They have a happy little affair -- but as soon as his father learns of it, their happiness is shattered. Ultra-devout Mustafa is beside himself:

     Ali, a man's actions speak for him. Your actions have proved quite the opposite. You do not love us. You have hurt us. You have brought the curse of Allah onto your family. When a person deviates from their true faith and turns his back to the Lord, the punishment of Allah descends not only upon him, but also upon his family and relatives.

       With the action beginning in August, 2015 in Paris, it's also fairly clear where the climax of this storyline is heading. This storyline also has what feels like the most simplistic characters and exaggerated actions -- in part, of course, because it is contemporary, and our feel for true-to-life is different for that than stories from the Middle Ages; obviously, the Hassan-i Sabbāh chapters are much more fantastical (and nevertheless less jarring in their exaggerations etc.). The storyline is fine enough -- if also a bit obvious in its lesson -- but certainly the weakest of the three, and as a standalone would come across as little more than well-meaning.
       There are some odd choices and odd bits and pieces along the different ways too -- including a lengthy exposition (by Liz's grandfather) on the TV series M*A*S*H, which mostly describes the characters reasonably accurately but calls Major Margaret 'Hot Lips' Houlihan: "an ordinary army prostitute who kept several lovers at the same time". There are some rough bits to the translation, too, but overall Point Zero is engaging enough that one can overlook most of this; it is a solid read.
       Malian perhaps tries a bit too hard to make his fiction meaning-full, and some of the elements of the stories and dialogue are (way) too simplistic, but for the most part he's a good storyteller and he has quite a few good stories to tell (and paces everything well -- i.e. quickly, ideally for a set of stories like this --, so that there are really no lulls). Point Zero is an unusual triptych in its presentation, but it works just fine.

                                                                                                        - M.A.Orthofer, 2 January 2021


Complete Review