On the Isle of Antioch
by Amin Maalouf
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Pub Date 05 Dec 2023 | Archive Date 01 Dec 2023
"Lebanese-born French author Maalouf delivers an elegant portrait of a dying world. A beguiling, lyrical work of speculative fiction by a writer of international importance." —Kirkus Reviews, *Starred Review*
Alec, a press artist with an impressive track record, settles on a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean. He has little contact with his neighbor, a solitary woman who wrote a cult book years ago, before withdrawing from public life. That is, until a gigantic power failure cuts them off from the rest of the world, and all of a sudden they find themselves dependent on each other. The world appears to be on the brink of nuclear war and the collapse of civilization seems imminent. Just who are the mysterious friends of Empedocles, the gang of otherworldly protectors who came swooping in to interfere with the US presidency and cure all illness? Should we trust them? On the Isle of Antioch is a suspenseful novel with mythological roots, written in the dreamy language of the classics, by internationally renowned scholar Amin Maalouf.
Praise for Amin Maalouf
“Maalouf is a thoughtful, humane and passionate interlocutor.” —New York Times Book Review
“Amin Maalouf is one of that small handful of writers, like David Grossman and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who are indispensable to us in our current crisis.” —New York Times
“Maalouf’s fiction offers both a model for the future and a caution, a way towards cultural understanding and an appalling measure of the consequences of failure. His is a voice which Europe cannot afford to ignore.” —The Guardian
- A dystopian novel about total collapse, for readers of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and American War by Omar El Akkad
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Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 45 members
If you read this as conventional dystopian genre-fiction, you will find this an absurd and baffling novel. Alexandre, a syndicated cartoonist, retires to his inherited private island, Antioch, a small piece of a Canadian archipelago. His only neighbour is Eve, an alcoholic misanthropic writer (her first book was a polarizing success, earning popular praise but scathing critical attacks, and she looks back on her novel chillingly as "the ceiling of her prison cell"). Each day Alexandre travels to a larger shoreline town by a small skiff chartered by a mysterious ferryman, who has a Greek name, Agamemnon, but looks Native American and has a dazzling knowledge of contemporary literature. One day, all the radios go silent. As Alexandre will soon learn from his friend, who is a close advisor to the US president (incidentally dying of terminal cancer), the world has been taken over by an advanced human civilization, calling itself the "friends of Empedocles", which has decided to enforce rapid nuclear disarmament in order to save humanity from self-destruction. They claim to have preserved the wisdom of Ancient Greece and they memorize the verses of Empedocles.
Much of the plot is implausible—high-tech lasers which can paralyze anyone from long distance, healing tubes which can forestall death, a secret seafaring cabal of philhellenic super-humans, and at the center of it all, a lonely island-dwelling illustrator who is somehow one degree of separation away from both the White House and the society itself; somehow he knows what it going on in the president's office and also knows one of the friends of Empedocles. But it would be a mistake to read this novel as just another scifi gadget novel with shiny weapons and alien powers. As some of the French reviews noted when it came out in 2020 (I just read a review in La Croix), this novel is in the style of "conte philosophique", satirical, irrealic, speculative, philosophical. It's not interested in plausibility but in big-picture ideas—what would happen if human society were confronted with a superior version of itself?
In essence, this novel cleverly turns colonialism upside-down: in this story, the western world now sees itself as the indigenous "primitives". Alexandre wonders whether all their science, culture and language will simply be exotic curiosities to this vastly superior culture. He worries that everything he has learned, everything that he cherishes, will simply become the contemporary equivalent of the wall etchings of Lascaux, the rudimentary drawings of Paleolithic proto-culture. When a doctor witnesses the mesmerizing medical science of these "friends of Empedocles", he decides to quit his profession altogether; everything he has learned is now obsolete. How is he any different from the acupuncturist, the witchdoctor or the Shaman, so often the object of professional derision? So it's not at all a sci-fi novel or geopolitical thriller; it's a novel that turns the colonial gaze back onto the reader, to question the haughty complacency of the western world and to recast modern humanity, and especially American empire, as a devolved simian monster tragically equipped with nuclear warheads.
It's a weird read. A fast-paced thriller but also a pure-hearted fable.
Amin Maalouf delivers another incisive and beautiful book, and a fresh take on the apocalypse read. A good choice for readers of Emily St. John Mandel.
Alec is a successful illustrator who settles on a remote Atlantic island, content to live a secluded life, hardly even interacting with the island’s only other inhabitant. When the island loses power, radio and phone signal, we are let in on the broader world. Maalouf lays out a world that seems at the brink of nuclear war, until the mysterious and possibly other-worldly friends of Empedocles intervene to avert nuclear disaster, and reveal technology capable of curing illness and aging.
The epistolary narrative works for me. We get the sense of a narrow lens and of broader events beyond what we can see. It is beautifully written, unsurprisingly given Maalouf’s recognition as a Great Author.
This was a really beautiful book that had me wanting more. Amin Maalouf is an exceptional talent and I think this books is a rare gem. Loved it.
I found the book quite gripping. In the first few chapters you think you're about to read an apocalypse novel, albeit an original one - the protagonist on his Caribbean (or wherever) island with just one drunken, anti-social novelist for company as the world ends. Then you realise that it's not the apocalypse - or at least not quite yet - in fact the world's been sort of taken over by a benevolent cult of ancient Greeks. I've always had a soft spot for ancient Greeks, so this in particular kept me reading...and reading.
Apart from being a page turner, the book raised some interesting questions about how we would behave if a benevolent, but immeasurably superior, culture chose to intervene in our affairs. As the protagonist says at one point, it's like the Spanish meeting up with Montezuma, or any number of 'native' cultures encountering advanced European people with guns. Except that in this case Americans are the 'natives', and the incoming powers that be are actually better than us in every way.
So, a thought-provoking page-turner - I'd happily read another Maalouf novel.
Thanks to World Editions and NetGalley for supplying and ARC of Amin Maalouf's 'On the Isle of Antioch' for review.
To my embarrassment I had not previously heard of Maalouf but I was intrigued by the cover, title, and blurb of 'On the Isle of Antioch.'
On a nearly remote island just barely off the coast of France, a cartoonist finds himself dealing with a possible nuclear apocalypse. The power goes as does the internet, phones, and radio. What other explanation could there be given the ratcheting up of state and terrorist rhetoric around nuclear weapons.
Turns out it's something much more unexpected and earth-shattering. A group of seemingly far-evolved humans have come to save their less-advanced cousins from themselves.
The tone is lovely and gentle while dealing with some very heavy and harsh realities - pandemic, the rejection of a cure (for everything), violent nationalism, xenophobia, racism, violence.
There's a welcome undercurrent of hope throughout which is unusual in a seemingly dystopian novel.
There's an engaging cast of core characters and it's all very believable.
I felt like the story and the novel fizzled out somewhat at the end but, nevertheless, I'm glad to have been introduced to Maalouf and his writing, albeit in translation.
Alec, a press artist, settles in a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean named Antioch - reference to one of the most important cities during the Hellenistic period, the Roman/Byzantine empire, and the crusades.
His only neighbor is this woman called Eve who wrote a book and is searching for inspiration, which he didn’t really care about at first until a huge power break cut them off from the rest of the world.
None of them understands what is happening, and with no electricity or internet, Alec starts to panic. Is it a terrorist attack? A nuclear war? Soon enough, Alec managed to get his old friend Moro on the phone whom is a close advisor to the president of the United States.
As a huge fan of Maalouf’s writing, the English translation of “Nos frères inattendus” is so well written. And as always in his writing, Maalouf makes us think about our world, realize what will happen eventually but also to always have faith and hope.
I liked the first bit better I think, when we didn't know exactly what was going on and we're getting to know our characters and settings.
The rest was enjoyable enough, but I just feel like I didn't really connect with the story so didn't get the best out of it.
really clumsy translation but if you can look past that there's a very unique story here. interesting stuff
About twenty years ago, a friend had lent me Amin Maalouf’s Balthasar’s Odyssey. Two decades later, the details of the plot escape me, but I still recall being entranced by a novel which was at once a wildly gripping narrative and an intellectually satisfying work. I hadn’t read any Maalouf since then, so I had great expectations about his latest novel, On the Isle of Antioch. Its protagonist and narrator is “Alec Zander”, a lawyer turned cartoonist who, as a result of a strange quirk of family history, owns the greater part of Antioch, a remote island in the Atlantic. The island is linked to a the larger neighbouring island through a causeway which appears at low tide. Otherwise, Alec is all alone, except for Ève, a reclusive and misanthropic female author who owns another part of Antioch, and who has settled there to escape attention, following the publication of a cult work of fiction in her youth. One day, there is a massive power failure, accompanied by a breakdown in internet and radio communication. Alec suspects that a long-feared nuclear armageddon has arrived. It eventually results that behind these unprecedented events there is a mysterious and highly-advanced society of individuals who call themselves the Friends of Empedocles, and who appear to be inspired by the values of the Ancient Greeks. The Friends of Empedocles declare that they come in peace. But can they be trusted and does their advent signal the collapse of civilisation as we know it?
Certainly, the novel’s premise is promising. Here is Amin Maalouf, a veritable and venerable man of letters, taking on a hoary trope of dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction and turning it into a philosophical meditation on the state of humanity. Yet, I found the novel ultimately underwhelming. Let me try to explain why.
So, first, the plot. Maalouf goes for a first person narration, which certainly makes matters more exciting and “immersive”. But for the purposes of plot development, the novel’s protagonist needs to double as a third-person omniscient narrator. To justify this, Maalouf relies on a series of extraordinary coincidences. Alec lives on a remote island. Yet, his only neighbour turns out to be the “muse” of the Friends of Empedocles, one of his friends is a member of the shadowy group and, to top it all, the closest advisor of the President of the US happens to be an old companion from University, such that, ironically Alec becomes probably the best-informed person in the world about the cataclysmic developments. In my view, even the most “speculative” of “speculative fiction”, needs to follow an internal logic to be credible, and sometimes this novel simply requires too much suspension of disbelief.
The novel borrows popular and genre fiction, and I’m perfectly fine with that. There’s action, dystopian thrills, and some romance. But the narrative arc seems to fizzle out. Without revealing too many details of the plot, there is some closure from the perspective of the narrator, but many questions remain unanswered. In other words, whoever reads this merely for the thrill of the tale will likely end up disappointed.
As for its philosophical ruminations, the novel does raise some interesting queries about contemporary society, the decline of civilisation, the diffident encounters between cultures. But these themes are alluded to without being considered too deeply.
Don’t get me wrong. I can’t say I disliked the novel. After all, Maalouf on a bad day is still better than most. But equally I cannot shake off a sense that On the Isle of Antioch could have been much more.
I felt really quite conflicted about this novel ,there were some elements I really enjoyed but ultimately I found it a highly confusing reading experience
The novel starts routinely and realistically setting up an island location off the coast of the uk where only 2 people live their neighbours can only be reached by boat or by a causeway only accessible at low tide .An unexplained episode happens which cuts off all contact with the outside world .You assume as reader that you will eventually have the episode explained .
Gradually you learn of some individuals who are in some way supernatural who gain control of world order
I was confused were these people aliens or was there a supernatural explanation .I found the politics unbelievable and was generally rather lost whilst I read
There is a very sudden ending which I found highly unsatisfactory.The novel left me feeling rather stupid and cross with myself for not following the story more easily consequently I couldn’t really recommend it to anyone
I read an early copy on NetGalley uk the book is published in the uk On 5th December 2023 by World Editions
This review will be published on Goodreads NetGalley uk and on my book blog bionicsarahsbooks.Wordpress.Com
Thank you Netgalley for a free copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review.
My first Amin Maalouf and definitely not my last. I have to give props the translator, Natasha Lehrer. I didn't have any of the issues I usually do with translated fiction.
This was a kind of post-apocalyptic, pandemic feeling type story. The prose was unique given that this book is written in diary form. It was very atmospheric and visually enticing. You could feel the chill and warmth throughout.
At the end of it all, this reminded me of Popisho and most of Emily St. John Mandel's books.
I will for SURE be picking up more books by this author. Maybe in Arabic too?