Idriss, a teenage goatherd in the Sahara, encounters two French people in a Land Rover. One, a young woman with blond hair and bare legs, takes his picture. She is taken aback to find that Idriss knows enough French to ask for the photo. She promises to send it once she gets back to Paris and has it developed. No photo arrives. But at a wedding party, he has a revelation:
Before the house of Mohammed ben Souhil, the musicians had formed a semicircle lit strongly and capriciously by torches. The music became furious, rose from moment to moment, transmitted an unbearable fever to the immobile bodies of the spectators. The rhythm grew in intensity for a purpose clear to all: to force dance to emerge, to effect the metamorphosis of the whole group of musicians into a single dance. And the birth took place: a black woman, dressed in red veils and silver jewellery, sprang up in the middle of the open space. Zett Zobeida only performed at the high point of the party, for she was its soul and flame. First she ran bent forward in rapid steps at the edge of the circle that was hers, as if to assure herself of her domain. Then she described a suite of figures that became more and more taut. It was clear: she was gathering all the music spread out in her space, she was putting together like an invisible harvest all the dance that was scattered around her. From then on the crowd danced with her, and each person repeated a haunting, enigmatic litany:
The dragonfly quivers on the water
The cricket squeaks on the rock
The dragonfly quivers and sings no speech
The cricket squeaks and says no word
But the wing of the dragonfly is a wordplay
But the wing of the cricket is a script
And this wordplay foils the trick of death
And this script unveils the secret of life.
Zett Zobeida was now moving in very small steps, closely surrounded by the musicians. Soon her feet moved on the spot, for the dance had completely entered her body. And of this body there appeared between the bottom of her bodice and the top of her dress no more than a hand’s width of shining black nudity. In the middle of this veiled statue, only this stomach danced, animated by an autonomous and intensely expressive life. It was the lipless mouth of all this body, the part of all this body that spoke, smiled, grimaced and sang:
The dragonfly words the trick of death
The cricket writes the secret of life.
From then on the dance of Zett Zobeida was the ballet of a hundred pieces of ringing jewellery. Hands of Fatima and crescent moons, gazelle hoofs and mother-of-pearl shells, coral necklaces and an amber bracelet, amulets, stars and pomegranates leading their dance in a great jingling confab. But what held Idriss’ gaze above all was, turning around a leather lace, a drop of gold of admirable lustre and outline. One cannot imagine an object of simpler and more concise perfection. Everything seems contained in this oval, slightly swelling at the base. Everything seems expressed in the silence of this lone bubble that has hit no other piece of jewellery in its slight swings. In contrast to pendants that imitate the sky, the land, the animals of the desert and the fish of the sea, the gilded bubble means nothing but itself. It is the pure sign, the absolute form.
That Zett Zobeida and her drop of gold were the expression of a world without images, the antithesis of and perhaps the antidote to the platinum woman with the camera, was something that Idriss began perhaps that evening to suspect.
The next day, Zett Zobeida and the musicians have vanished before Idriss is awake. But he find the drop of gold in the sand where she was dancing. And he decides that he doesn’t want to get married and stay in his village for the rest of his life. He will go to France and find the woman with the camera and get his photograph. In the first town on the way north to the coast, he finds in the Museum of the Sahara a replica of a typical desert dwelling and recognises the very kitchen implements he had seen his mother using the day before. His journey towards Paris takes him deeper and deeper into the world of images, of mediation. He finds it hard to recognise the person in his passport photo. A half-crazed old woman tries to persuade him to take the place – and name – of her dead son. A blonde French prostitute takes his drop of gold in payment. After many adventures and parables involving kings and queens, painters and weavers, mannequins, film-making and live sex shows, he takes up calligraphy, the Islamic disavowal of the image, the power of the word.
I don’t know what to make of this as a novel – partly because my French isn’t good enough to appreciate it properly – but this idea of the image as the opium of the West, of the Western addiction to images, keeps coming back to me. I’ve always been partial to a bit of eye candy, but I’ve also known that images offer too easily drama, beauty, intrigue; grab the eye and you’ve grabbed the mind, but with what? And the promise of knowledge, of possession that they offer too; the lie of snapping four dimensions into two and pretending there’s no difference; the gambits of mediation that we learn long before our ABC; and so On Photography.
So is it a coincidence that an Islamic culture produces the aesthetically restrained films of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, which seem to take place largely in the head of the viewer? Perhaps I’m growing up.
The novel is called La goutte d’or by Michel Tournier. The title has been translated as The Golden Droplet, and although the drop of gold in question is also referred to in the text as a “gilded bubble” or “balloon”, it seems to have nothing to do with the Gilded Balloon. I guess it’s no coincidence that there’s a district in Paris called Goutte d’Or, named after the white wine vineyards that used to be there, which houses a lot of immigrants from North Africa.