This is my review of Ulysse from Bagdad by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
When a relative is tortured for no reason by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, teenager Saad Saad decides to become a rebel on the basis that if he is to be punished one day, it might as well be for a cause. On learning this, his eccentric librarian father introduces him to the store of “subversive” banned books he has hidden away rather than destroy as instructed. Following the violent deaths of his father and three brothers-in-law, Saad Saad abandons his law studies to support his family, until his mother orders him to travel abroad to earn enough money to keep them. So begins his Odyssey of trials and tribulations from Baghdad to his goal of London, loosely modelled on the voyage of Odysseus or Ulysses, with heroin-guzzling companions in the role of “Lotus eaters”, a one-eyed jailor for a Cyclops, a deafening heavy metal girl pop band for Sirens, the blonde Sicilian who, Circe-like, might just deflect and so on, the difference being that Ulysses was travelling away from war to reach home, whereas Saad Saad is obliged to leave his war-torn country to build a new life in an alien land.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of the most widely read French writers in the world. A graduate in philosophy, he has a talent for applying this in popular terms to a variety of moral themes of current concern. I admire Schmitt’s skill as a wordsmith, no pun intended, and the quirky originality of his short stories in “Concerto à la mémoire d’un ange”, but here, in employing black farce to ease the bleakness of the theme of illegal migration into Europe, he has strayed too far into absurdity for my taste. An example of this is the dead father’s tendency to pop up at odd moments to deliver jocular homilies and wisecracks to his son. When the two hydrophobic natives of landlocked Iraq have to cross the Red Sea, the father relies on the spirit world to get him across, while Saad Saad resorts to demanding a massive dose of the heroin he has previously rejected to get himself to the far shore.
The author is apparently widely used for teaching texts in schools and colleges, and I agree that this novel could be an effective way of introducing teenagers to the moral dilemmas posed by the pressures for modern mass migration. Even what Schmitt fails to cover could be brought into the analysis. As it is, his focus seems to be on the artificial nature of current boundaries, the dangers of the nationalism they tend to create, the debt which the wealthy West owes the poorer countries it has exploited. The over-arching case for migration is found in the prologue and repeated continually, namely “the lottery of birth” which dictates whether one is born into peace, prosperity and opportunity or the reverse. At no point does the author consider the conundrum of how to implement controls on migration to prevent the destruction of the stable culture which draws people in the first place. The nearest he gets to questioning migration is the portrayal of the kind of London district in which a migrant is likely to end up: an overcrowded room with a view of wet, black chimneys coated in greasy pollution , surrounded by sex shops, smelly dustbins and vomit outside pubs.
The book strikes me as somewhat formulaic and contrived, in that it strings together, admittedly with some imaginative flair, widely known facts about the state of Iraq or the ruses and perils migration. So we have the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the attempt to escape from the country via a fundamentalist band or shipping stolen artifacts, the ploy of losing one’s papers, the frustrating limbo of the refugee camps and ordeal of overloaded boats in stormy seas.
Most of the characters are caricatures, implausible, like the father, or two-dimensional as in Saad’s sketchily drawn relationship with Leila. Too often, the players express their ideas in a kind of condensed rant. Saad appears to be a vehicle for the author’s ideas and wit: his “voice” is too westernised and objective in lines of thought and observations , perhaps because Saad has read so many “subversive” foreign books.“Ulysse from Bagdad