To follow up on my previous book review of The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi, I would like to discuss story characters in relation to segregation. Can a character in a novel depict segregation? And how does this work? In this article I will take a closer look at the character ‘Martin Millet’.
A few stereotypes are relevant for the depiction of the character of Martin Millet. These are especially related to the stereotypical European and the general stereotypical opposition between the East and West which is linked to it. It is most useful to start with this latter stereotype because it gives the necessary background information to be able to look further into the other stereotypes which are used to portray Millet.
The first important aspect of the stereotypical East-West opposition is the notion of Orientalism, as invented by Said. Orientalism is a kind of ‘othering’. Othering refers to defining yourself as to what you are not. As Beller illustrates: “to see peoples in terms of their otherness will, so Said argued, tend to heighten the positive profile of one’s self-image and to immobilize the other in a net of negative stereotypes” (Beller and Leerssen 390). This net of negative stereotypes to which Beller refers can also be linked to the novel The Fascination of Evil Millet eventually wrote. The book we are reading can thus refer to two things: metafiction and the birth of the novel we are reading, or a double title referring to two different books: the book we are reading or the novel written by Millet in the story. In this book (the double) all stereotypical images and islamophobia come together and Millet does what Beller calls “denying the Orient (or Islam) the capacity of progress, rationalism or democracy” (Beller and Leerssen 392). But how does this sense of Orientalism and islamophobia relate to the stereotypes Millet portrays, and which eventually became part of the novel we are reading as well as the novel carrying the same name in the story?
Millet seems to depict a stereotypical ‘European’, which is equaled with someone from the ‘West’. Especially because he portrays himself as being superior to everyone, in particular when he depicts himself as a rational Westerner. Moreover, he continually stresses that the West’s sexual freedom is rational, whereas the Islamic world is described as a “sexual desert” (Zeller 38). This is opposed to the West, which is described as being able to progress and move on: “the West rid itself of this frigid religion and developed a more tragic view of existence: the absence of transcendence ensured that the pleasure of the moment regained all its former importance” (Zeller 39). Millet sees the lack of sexual freedom, which leads to frustration in his eyes, as the cause of violence. Although in the end he gets killed because of his views. Maybe this would have been caused by the irrationality of the Eastern world, according to him. He states that novels are never read in the Eastern part of the world and that people have opinions about things they haven’t even read. This illustrates that he again feels himself, being a novelist, superior to these people. But he is not able to escape from this religious fanaticism. He even states so himself: “and little by little, Europe would become Muslim. According to him, the European Western system quite simply had no chance” (Zeller 143).
Moreover, Millet continually stresses the differences between Europeans and Arabs. The French used to be loved by the Arabs: “I even had English friends who passed themselves off as French…” (Zeller 36). But this changed within a short time due to the law which banned wearing ‘the veil’ in France: “things have changed a bit over the last few weeks. Because of the law on secularism. Here, people thought it was an anti-Islamic law, banning the wearing of the veil in the street… That’s why, for the time being, it’s better not to say you’re French” (Zeller 36). The East-West opposition is further stressed in the novel: “it is rather surprising to note that Europe has so much difficulty defending the most European of arts, that is to say in defending its own culture” (Zeller 152-153). This brings the attention to a European feeling that the Eastern world does not know art as in Europe, that Eastern countries are ‘backward’ countries.
In sum, Millet represents a Europe which is his own mental construct, as represented through the novels he writes and which contain many racist remarks. By doing this he represents himself as being superior. However, the images he writes down are all based on stereotypical notions which accumulate through time but are not necessarily timeless, as is also mentioned in the novel a few times. It stresses that the East wasn’t always ‘a sexual desert’ like for example the stories of Thousand and One Nights, which was eventually banned. However, all this illustrates that “the Orient is a mental construct” (Beller and Leerssen 390). Just as the images and stereotypical prejudices you have are mental constructs.
If you want to read the book yourself, it is available on Amazon:
- Beller and Leerssen, Imagology: The cultural construction and literary representation of national stereotypes, Amsterdam: Rodopi 2007.
- Florian Zeller, The Fascination of Evil, London: Pushkin Press 2006.
- Aamazon.com, http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51ZXldAt6fL._SL500_AA300_.jpg, consulted 27-12-2012.