Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Island of Point Nemo

By Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, translated by Hannah Chute

Reviewed By Nicholas Litchfield

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Absurd, thrilling, and wickedly funny, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s rollicking Island of Point Nemo is a wildly inventive novel that crosses continents and oceans and literary styles and genres, attempting to find a narrow path between two entertaining though disparate storylines. Drawing inspiration from classic storytellers like Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Blas de Roblès blends mystery, science fiction, crime, and satire, to craft an accomplished, extraordinary tale that swings and leaps between vintage action-adventure involving a trio of detectives in search of a stolen diamond, and modern-day satire focused on the boss of a manufacturing plant and his unhealthy obsession with the workers.

This is the ninth novel by Algerian-born Blas de Roblès, author of the critically acclaimed Where Tigers Are at Home, which won the Prix Médicis in 2008 and was short-listed for the Goncourt Prize and the European Book Award. Originally published in 2014 in France, Island of Point Nemo has been translated into English for the first time by Hannah Chute.

The delightful opening storyline, a fast-paced, rip-roaring piece of fiction, follows a fine ensemble of eccentric characters as they attempt to unravel a series of connected mysteries. The two principal characters include a fastidious, exquisitely dressed popinjay named Martial Canterel, and his friend John Shylock Holmes, a former curator of the Bodleian Library at Oxford turned adventurer who now spends his time “traveling across the world in search of rare objects.” Canterel is very much front and center in the story, and the colorful descriptions of his appearance give him a larger-than-life quality. Rich, sophisticated, and learned, the forty-five-year-old adventure-seeking Casanova is a rather bizarre creation. He has a “fleshy little mouth with a disconcerting pout,” hair that looks as if he “sends for his barber each morning and gives him as a model a portrait of Louis II of Bavaria at the age of eighteen,” a very thick, rippling mustache that stretches “to an uncommon length before rising up, and then fading into tawny whiskers,” and is luxuriously attired in “a braided frock coat over a waistcoat of quilted silk, a white collared shirt with a double bow tie the color of a Périgord truffle, cashmere trousers, and grey beaver boots.”

As for Holmes, he seems more familiar. In possession of critical thinking skills, a broad knowledge of things, far-reaching social connections, and “gifted with a prodigious memory,” he should not be confused with the illustrious detective Sherlock Holmes, who just happens to have a similar name and somewhat comparable occupation. In contrast to Sherlock, Blas de Roblès’s Holmes is predisposed to search for answers at the bottom of a fine glass of scotch rather than through deductive reasoning.

Employed by an insurance company to retrieve the 800-carat diamond stolen from Lady MacRae’s castle in Scotland, Holmes has read an astonishing newspaper article about the discovery of three severed right feet, each shod in the same nonexistent brand of sneaker, that have washed ashore on three Scottish coastlines, and believes there is a connection. Canterel, once on intimate terms with Lady MacRae, joins forces with Holmes and his servant, Grimod de la Reynière, whose shocking life story is as remarkable as anything else in the book. And so begins their surreal, action-packed journey across the globe, from Biarritz to Scotland, London, Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, and Point Nemo, in search of “the largest diamond ever excavated from an earthly mine.”

Paying tribute to scores of noted authors and works from the Victorian era, Blas de Roblès takes the reader to unfamiliar places and plunges his fearless heroes into continual danger. When they are not deciphering multilingual codes, interviewing suspects, competing with Inspector Scummington, and stumbling over corpses, they are surviving catastrophes aboard an “elegant cigar” shaped airship, braving rough passages in rowboats, steamships and schooners, and dodging bullets, tumbling animals, and an infamous killer known as the Noh Straddler as they ride the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The secondary story concerns the employees of a factory in France involved in manufacturing “revolutionary” e-book readers—one soon-to-be-released device that offers free access to two hundred very famous books from the nineteenth century that are already in the public domain, and one disposable single e-book reader that is still in the developmental stage. More concerned with selling an idea than a meaningful product, the company’s limited and flawed digital texts are as perverted and worthless as Wang-li Wong, the sexually abusive, Peeping Tom factory boss. A habitual voyeur, Monsieur Wang has personally installed dozens of hidden cameras throughout the plant, mostly in locker rooms, showers, and toilets, and relishes watching the video footage of female workers in compromising situations on his iPad.

Though shocking and unpleasant at times, the passages containing the vile Monsieur Wang are some of the most interesting. There is also an outrageously comic side story detailing a desperate wife’s torturous experiments on her husband in order to cure his continual impotence.

The salacious humor may not be to everyone’s taste, and there are some extraneous characters and story threads that add unnecessary baggage to an elaborate novel that is already heaving with ideas. Nevertheless, Blas de Roblès manages to keep the adventure afloat. In spite of its seesawing plot structure and the enormous gulf between the two narratives, his admirable inventiveness, zeal for the outlandish, and provocative, daring humor make Island of Point Nemo an invigorating, memorable work that is well worth exploring.

 

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of six literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a journalist, librarian, and media researcher. His book reviews for the Lancashire Evening Post are syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.