Someone Without Peers

Mohammad Tolouei

Artwork by Jiin Choi

I have a friend who I see once in a while, and whenever we meet, we talk about our favourite books. Next time, we will take our words back. It’s always like this; we turn back and refine our opinions on books. We do so reluctantly, because ‘to refine’ implies that once we had talked crap and had even insisted that our crap talk was correct. Last night, for instance, my friend sent me a message stating that The Night Journey by Bahman Sholevar is not as compliment-worthy as he had once believed, and that Jalal Ale Ahmad’s criticism (which at the time had seemed like conservative nonsense written out of envy) now sounds thoroughly truthful. We used to enthusiastically praise Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for how it changed the way we thought about time. Some twelve years later, when we met, the first thing we talked about was how amazing it was that thanks to Kundera we had once thought the world was reversible, and in any event, life was going to give us time for free. We went through a singular agony reading Ismail Kadare’s The Great Winter, and it was only when we next met that we realised all the hardships we read about could also have been part of our own lives.

There was however an exception. I had a story on which I built my life and future, and I was conscious not to talk about it, so that I could protect my life’s only true tale. It was the first thing to enchant me, the first book that never let me go, the first of a series of signs that would later drag me to writing.

Like all kids whose parents were teachers during the 1980s, I knew how to read before I started my schooling. It might have been the consequence of the revolution or perhaps of the war, but our parents wanted us to learn about everything ahead of time, and be aware of our surroundings as soon as possible. Or perhaps, with so much death surrounding them, they presumed only that we would have little time in which to live. As a child I had read whole editions of Jack London and Jules Vernes (complete or abridged), all the books in the children’s A-to-D category, the books at Kanoon Library in our district, and the poems of Forough Farrokhzad and M. Azad (these poetry collections had been published by Kanoon and were still on the shelves until the library purge of the early 1990s’). This does not mean that I understood everything I read, but that like a man with not much time left to live, I read voraciously. The instructors and librarians at Kanoon thought that I was returning the books unread, so they asked me questions about the plots before they let me borrow more, and from then on, they made a new rule for me: that no new book could be borrowed before the one-week lending loan for each book had passed.

I found my darling book not in the library of Kanoon, but among my mother’s books. Joseph Balsamo was my mother’s book. Of course, it was not ‘the’ Joseph Balsamo, but a pocket-sized multi-volume work titled Before Thunder and a pocket-sized series of at least nineteen volumes published under the title of The Thunder’s Rumble. I read the books stealthily, without her permission. Mother banned me from reading certain books. I never understood why; she never explained. So I picked up Before Thunder and The Thunder’s Rumble without her permission and started to read them. Perhaps it is time to go to her and confess.

The main character of the books was an old man of nobility. This man was a master of disguise who entered parties, revolted, plotted, seduced women, possessed the elixir of youth, and travelled all over Europe in a strange coach in which he kept his alchemical laboratory and a closet containing not just clothes, but wigs and disguises.

The book was written by Alexandre Dumas, père, and translated by Zabihullah Mansouri (back then I used to presume that the père was actually part of his surname). I had never read anything about either man, and knew nothing about them. In the room shared with my sister, I sat for many hours swallowing up the pages. There were many things that I did not understand: the court dance ceremonies, names of beverages, card games, the correct pronunciation of the names of barons and counts, the fishy relationship between the lords and duchesses, and the lengthy hours during which the maids and servants were made to carry out trivial tasks so that the nobility could sit undisturbed in the gardens, and discuss court issues and the secret affairs of the counts and viscounts. I did not dare ask anybody about the book, thinking that these things were matter-of-fact parts of adult life that everyone knew about, and that if I ever asked about them, my mother would know that I was reading her books secretly. I feared she would hide the books and so I would never discover how things ended. This was my most serious anxiety at age eight: that I would not reach the ending of Joseph Balsamo’s adventures. Balsamo was my role model, someone I wanted to be like, a person who could go anywhere he wished and be received, do whatever he wanted, make anyone fall in love with him and then run away. He passed through all hazards and left no betrayal unpunished. 

Years later, I had the same sentiment when I read One Thousand and One Nights, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Master and Margarita. Sometimes I thought I wanted to be D’Artagnan, but then I changed my mind and returned to my hero, old Joseph Balsamo. No other book made me feel like that; I was like someone who had experienced an unknown drug and no matter what I smoked or ate or injected after that, I could not reach that ecstasy again. I never dared read the Balsamo books again, for I feared that the magic of those moments had something to do with the time at which I read them. I wanted to keep at least a sign that indicated that I should be writing, one that could stay in my mind, safe and sound, as wonderful as it was when I first read it, but real life is cruel enough not to allow one to make room for such things.

My friend’s message was brief and simple: Dig Alexander Dumas.

Dumas the son or the father, I messaged back, implying that I have read him already and I’m a hell of a reader and he’d better stop showing off by name-dropping writers.

After two days, he wrote back, “Yes, I’ve seen your writing based on The Count of Monte Cristo, but I meant his Joseph Balsamo. Go read it.”

And then he sent me a Wikipedia page about a person named Alessandro Cagliostro, which taught me the name’s correct pronunciation.

In the real world, Joseph Balsamo had been an Italian named Alessandro Cagliostro (though there was no country named Italy whence Alessandro Cagliostro could have come), who had introduced himself as the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, but in France had the nickname Giuseppe or Joseph Balsamo. Born to a poor Jewish family in Sicily, Giuseppe had an avid interest in chemistry, which in those days was mixed up with occultism and mysticism. He had an enchanted spirit, and combined magic and science, all of which led to him making some rather grandiose claims to omniscience. Along with his beautiful wife, he left the kingdom of Sicily and went to Paris, where he soon became a renowned figure. It was rumored that he practiced black magic and often put his wife—who otherwise apparently despised him—under hypnosis. His name became famous in France due to his involvement in the affair of the diamond necklace—the special gift that Louis XV gave to his mistress, Madame du Barry—and due to a meeting Balsamo had with Marie Antoinette, when he predicted the French Revolution and her subsequent execution.

After the revolution, you could find traces of Balsamo all over Europe. Like an apparition, he had been everywhere and done everything. This fictitious history saw Balsamo as a sort of omnipresent demigod in Europe, at once hero and villain.

Giuseppe had toured around Europe and even travelled to Alexandria, Mecca and Medina. He was accused of being freemason, an illuminatist, and even a preacher in what was then a new esoteric Egyptian cult, and is now a flourishing branch of freemasonry with many members. Whether I was happy with this piece of information, I could not say, but I impulsively decided to look for the book.  

There is a new translation of Joseph Balsamo in the market. I am not surprised, for I knew all about Mansouri’s translation politics. Apparently he had merged the content of a number of books like Queen Margot (La Reine Margot), Joseph Balsamo, and La Dame de Monsoreau to fabricate his book series Before Thunder, in which Joseph Balsamo appeared in scenes and then disappeared (how I missed him when he vanished). Mansouri spiced up In Thunder’s Rumble with a little bit from The Three Musketeers (the epic scenes in both series are modelled after the duel scenes in The Three Musketeers, though he does not overindulge in his craft, so he can sell The Three Musketeers to the publisher separately). These odd conglomerations of books were published in different editions and various volumes. (Those in my childhood hands were a pocket-sized series in nineteen or twenty volumes by a really anonymous publisher, and they had been read so much and circulated from hand to hand that they had almost lost their spines. After reading them, my mother had lent out the books and she no longer remembered the number of volumes in the series. However, when I confessed that I used to furtively read her books, she revealed that she had always known). In the editions I found and browsed at Safavi Second-Hand Book Arcade, Before Thunder had eight volumes and Thunder’s Rumble, seven.

 “I read it as a child,” I wrote to my friend, “I should probably read it again.”

Zabihullah Mansouri was not the only one who mildly orientalised Joseph Balsamo by incorporating elements of wonder and disguise from the Arabian Nights into his translations, moving his tale from a comedic to an epic genre. The residue of this kind of orientalism, with its fashioning of mystic narratives, can be found in the Salnos du Roman of Pre-Revolutionary Paris and traced back to Romanticist literature after Galland’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights and Delacroix’s The Thousand and One Days. From Goethe to Tolstoy and from Friedrich Schiller to Umberto Eco, whoever has written about Balsamo has wrapped him in a thick cocoon of fantasy. His involvement in almost every historical event of the period has been so hyperbolised that historiographers, historians of the French revolution, occult writers and historiographers (who have revealed their pronounced tendency towards further complicating history) have gathered seemingly factual fictions and represented them to us as sheer history. I want to read the novel again, though I don’t want to offer my opinion about the story. I will rather read it knowing that I am dealing with a kind of history that imitates literature and I am sure would fascinate me even more than before.        

I hurriedly go through a hundred pages. Mansouri is a master of hocus-pocus: he has extended Alexandre Dumas’ romantic descriptions (whoever wants to extend the writings of a Romanticist grown and raised in the suburbs of Paris cannot help but re-describe descriptions). He lets Balsamo—who is already under the effect of his elixirs—pass along rural roads and private hunting grounds. The story moves slower than I remembered, and I am feeling content that as a child I did not jump over passages, lines or pages in the novel, to reach the action and the dialogue. I closed the book and stared at the plastic bag that held the rest of the books.

Joseph Balsamo breathed, walked and ate in fiction just like a historical figure. He was nonetheless a product of the writers’ desires and wills: the will to be extraordinary, to do magic, to subvert the oppressor’s power, and to make an impact on others. In spite of all the things written about him, I presume that Joseph Balsamo is a happy and prosperous image of the writers themselves, of what a writer really desires to become—that is a historically influential minstrel/magician.

“Or perhaps I should not read it,” I wrote to my friend again, “Let it stay in my mind as it is.”

I paid for the books I had ordered but left them there for another customer, feeling the least desire to analyse this last magic book of my life: the last surviving sign of writing.

translated from the Persian by Farzaneh Doosti