Is Amin Maalouf’s Latest Novel, On the Isle of Antioch, a Parody?

14 June, 2024

In which the reviewer questions whether, in this novel, the Franco-Lebanese master is at the height of his powers, or is having us on…


On the Isle of Antioch, a novel by Amin Maalouf
Translated by Natasha Lehrer
World Editions 2024
ISBN 9781642861341


Farah-Silvana Kanaan


When and under what circumstances one reads a book will undoubtedly color one’s reading experience and overall receptiveness to it. Like many people these days, my mind is consumed with Gaza and, whether consciously or subconsciously, I couldn’t help but look for parallels in the dystopian world created by Amin Maalouf in his latest novel. Ultimately, such parallels turn out to be the story’s only enjoyable element, its near-yet-not-quite saving grace.

Amin Maalouf On the Isle of Antioch
On the Isle of Antioch is published by World Editions.

The premise of the epistolary On the Isle of Antioch — related in the form of journal entries by the protagonist — is appealing. Who hasn’t dreamed of moving to a tiny and sparsely populated island, spending all day writing or drawing and swimming in the sea, and getting drawn into a life-changing adventure, one that fundamentally changes how we see the world and our place in it? That’s sort of what happens in On the Isle of Antioch, which is set on a fictional French Atlantic Ocean island. (There is a real-world Strait of Antioch off the western coast of France. The strait is named after the city ­— famed for its role in early Christian history — located in modern-day Turkey.)











Political cartoonist Alec Zander’s lonely yet otherwise idyllic existence is rudely disturbed when he wakes up one morning to find all communication with the outside world cut off. Alec calls on his only neighbor, Ève, a disillusioned, alcoholic writer who penned a cult novel a decade earlier. She is unable to help but will figure prominently in the story. When the power is suddenly restored, a friend of Alec’s who is close to the White House reveals to him that an advanced human race, the “friends of Empedocles,” which evolved separately from ours centuries earlier, has staged an intervention to support our foundering humanity.

Through daily journal entries, Alec then explores the repercussions of this information and how the world, those closest to him, and, most importantly, he himself, react to this development. Intriguing, no?

Alas, the execution leaves much to be desired.

Though ably translated (from the French) by Natasha Lehrer, the book is written with seemingly little respect for the reader, as though it were a homework assignment that Maalouf remembered half an hour before the submission deadline and then hurriedly cobbled together. The resulting superficiality is almost impossible to stomach — as is the banality of the prose. At one point, the protagonist describes the weather outside as “the sky was crying,” a metaphor so rinsed out that my mind immediately conjured up the scene in the film Il Postino (1994) in which the poet Pablo Neruda uses it to explain what a metaphor is to his postman.

More importantly, the story is unconvincing despite its fascinating premise. It turns out that, even though the ultimate goal of the friends of Empedocles — who have named themselves after an ancient Greek philosopher — is to save their less evolved parallel kin, most people come to view them as an existential threat. Yet we find out relatively little about why this is the case, other than mindless hysteria. And we are treated to scenes between Alec and his neighbor that are riddled with clichés. In fact, Ève is a stereotype at every turn. Particularly cringe-worthy is her reacting to the arrival of the friends of Empedocles like some excited little schoolgirl, in sharp contrast with the balanced and intellectual approach of the protagonist.

I feel almost embarrassed to write all this. After all, where do I get the audacity to criticize the work of an author who has not only written 18 novels, but who last year became the new head of the prestigious 388-year-old Académie Francaise? Yet it is precisely because the Franco-Lebanese Maalouf is a literary giant that one is left flabbergasted by the thinness of his latest work.

To be sure, it’s oddly satisfying to have our world be lectured by a far more evolved parallel species on exactly how broken it is. Considering our current state of affairs, and especially the fact that the most powerful country refuses to use its undeniable influence as a force for good — instead insisting on aiding and abetting a genocide — one can easily imagine the friends of Empedocles as the good guys in this scenario. They are the only characters in the story who prove to be interesting and even appealing. Perhaps this was the goal of the author — to illustrate how our species has lost its way and to give us a glimpse into how things could have worked out better. If only we had refused to let ourselves be guided by greed, by othering, by a sense of superiority. It’s almost impossible not to place On the Isle of Antioch in the current context: worldwide student uprisings in response to the Western-supported Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people. Yet this is not enough, in and of itself, to redeem the unconvincing story.

The novel falls short of believably imparting any hope that we might correct our past mistakes and carve out a better path for ourselves. How could it, with the US president laughably presented as a beacon of integrity whose only goal seems to be to save the world, even at his own expense, and with the United States described as “a nation which, in the last few decades, has emerged as the only superpower, and arguably the only civilization”? Considering the actual state of the world, and the role of the US government in it, no level of suspension of disbelief is enough for the reader to willingly accept such a delusional conceit.

At one point, Alec mulls over rumors that the friends of Empedocles have released massive levels of radioactivity with malicious intent, which in turn seems to temporarily unite a deeply divided humanity to fend off the threat. “Could this be true?” he muses. “Was it possible that for once all the nations of the world had put aside their rivalries and longstanding suspicions of each other to come together to try and disarm these overlords who are seeking to subjugate them?”

One can hardly imagine a thinking person in our world entertaining such a pollyannish notion. We humans are far too opportunistic to unite in the face of adversity; many of us would collaborate with those overlords in return for some short-term gain!

Of course, one should never assume that a writer necessarily agrees with his or her protagonist. But there remains the main issue with this novel, namely that the story is told in a lackluster way, with little conviction in the ideas it conveys. As for the dialogue, it ricochets between stilted and borderline ridiculous. Also, the way Ève is portrayed is so one-dimensional that it’s disrespectful:

Ève Saint-Gilles must have been beautiful once. In fact, I know she was, I’ve seen old photos of her: glossy auburn hair, a voluptuous décolleté, and a coquettish smile. But bitterness and alcohol have faded her looks prematurely. I’m fifty-three but look, I’m told—flattery aside—no more than forty-five, while she at thirty-seven looks closer to fifty. And yet her eyes, which you might imagine would be dull, continue to sparkle. If only she’d brush her hair, color it, straighten her shoulders, and stick out her bust—provocatively, generously, flirtatiously, whatever—if only she’d …

For all his unsavory views regarding Ève’s looks, Alec attributes prophetic powers to her, as her book The Future Doesn’t Live Here Anymore turns out to be a highly celebrated literary achievement by the friends of Empedocles. When he finally sits down to read the novel, her supposedly profound worldview boils down to the run-of-the-mill take that we’re doomed and the observation that, although we think we are a superior species, we are in fact supremely self-destructive. Alec, however, is impressed. He reflects that all this “couldn’t be seen with a naked eye when The Future Doesn’t Live Here Anymore came out a dozen years ago,” which “might explain why it caused such a sensation at the time.”

That’s it. Ève is a Cassandra-like figure whose prophecies — for all the controversy they aroused — were not sufficiently appreciated, let alone heeded.

It’s not just Ève who remains frustratingly one-dimensional; every character in the book is poorly fashioned. They are not remotely sympathetic, yet neither do they enjoy any picaresque qualities. Alec is in a class of his own. In addition to his aforementioned off-putting descriptions of Ève, Alec ostensibly belongs to a rare breed of narcissists who refer to themselves as such — which may be honest but is no less distasteful. Also, he seems to look down on anything or anyone non-Western (something that at times characterizes Maalouf himself, here and in other writings).[1] His descriptions of the “less advanced” are so grotesque that I had to physically close the book on more than one occasion and shake my head to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating: “One might argue that over the last few centuries many non-Western societies—India, China, Japan, the Muslim East, sub-Saharan Africa—have seen their medicine, and arguably all their traditional knowledge, fall into disrepute and then gradually be forgotten.”

What might account for all these shortcomings in On the Isle of Antioch? Perhaps the novel is meant to be a scathing parody — of the world we live in, of the United States, of right-wing bloviating about Western civilization versus the barbaric rest, of comically badly written women and casual misogyny. If so, I would happily admit to having been bamboozled, and this entire review would be rendered moot. Maybe the book is some sort of joke played on us all by the author, or a ChatGPT experiment to show us that artificial intelligence remains hobbled by the lingering biases of those who program it. One can only hope.


[1] Out of many examples, the following immediately springs to mind: “Anyone who is fascinated, attracted, disturbed, horrified or intrigued by the Arab world is bound from time to time to ask himself certain questions. Why those veils, those chadors, those dreary beards, those calls for assassination? Why so many manifestations of conservatism and violence? Are all these things inherent in such societies, in their culture and religion? Is Islam incom­patible with liberty, democracy, the rights of man and of woman, with modernity itself? Such questions are quite natural.” This is one of several such passages in Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (1998). Similar examples can be found in his Disordered World: Setting a New Course for the Twenty-first Century (2011).


Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut and lived there until the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975. He settled in Paris in 1976 and published his first book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, in 1983. In 1993, The Rock of Tanios, his fifth novel, won the Goncourt Prize, the most prestigious literary award in France. Maalouf is a member of the Académie Française and in 2010 was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature for his entire oeuvre. In 2021 he was voted one of 12 International Writers by the Royal Society of Literature, an initiative celebrating the power of literature to transcend borders and bring people together. He was awarded both the Terzani Prize and the Malaparte Prize for Adrift, also published in English by World Editions. His work has been translated into 50 languages and his most recent bestselling novel available in English is The Disoriented.

Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Lebanese-Italian writer, journalist, photographer and creative consultant/developmental editor based in Beirut. Born and raised in The Netherlands, she majored in Film Studies at the University Bologna and Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She previously worked as an editor and reporter at Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star and as a features writer at L’Orient Today. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The New Arab, Kinfolk Magazine, Rusted Radishes, several Dutch newspapers and other publications and is a Lebanon correspondent for Dutch national radio. She was a guest editor for the Sea/Bahr edition of Italian cultural magazine Arabpop. Her work focuses on the politics of culture in the Global South, the Mediterranean identity, and all things related to Lebanon and Palestine. Her three biggest dreams are to publish her family saga that will take the reader from Lebanon to the Netherlands (via Syria, Egypt, Greece and Italy), buy a small house by the Mediterranean and the liberation of Palestine.

Arab writingGazagenocideIn the Name of IdentityLebanonPalestiniansparodywar


  1. I agree with the book review of Antioch but part may reflect the reality of our tomorrow. Except there will be no one to save us . I haven’t finished the book yet so I don’t know the ending. The book club discussion should be interesting.

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