Axel Jensen: Ikaros – ung mann i Sahara (Icarus – A Young Man in Sahara)
Our narrator is unnamed. At the beginning of the book, he writes a letter to one of the characters five years after the event described in the book and merely calls himself The Author. During the course of the book he tells us he told the Tuaregs he was called Mustafa as his Norwegian name was difficult to pronounce.
He has travelled from Marseilles to Algiers. Algeria is still a French colony at the time. He had been hoping to go to Tibet via Bhutan but, on arrival, he finds a letter declining his request for a Bhutanese visa. He is currently writing a book, an unreadable apocalypse dealing with fall, crucifixion, death and resurrection . He describes himself as novice and hunter at the same time. The white man with fever-feet on African soil . He does not want to be normal – I wanted only the impossible, the crazy, the miraculous! and concludes I am just a young man in a crazy world and I am tired of people .
He stays in a cheap hotel and soon meets a Norwegian sailor. Our hero considers himself cultured while the sailor clearly is not. The sailor takes him to a brothel and he is about to decline the invitation when he sees Angelina. She is the first of several women whose charms will entice him in this book.
Unable to go to Bhutan and Tibet he goes to Thomas Cook and is attracted by the idea of going to Tamanrasset, a remote town in southern Algeria where there are a lot of Tuareg. I felt that I would find something there in the land of the Tuaregs.
However, his options are limited. There are essentially two ways to get there, a distance of some 2000 kilometres: by plane (very expensive)or with an organised tour (expensive). He can afford neither. He manages to hitch a ride (for a fee) with some smugglers. Things go badly and he has to walk the final part of the journey.
In Tamanrasset, he meets various characters, including the homesick lieutenant who won’t let him sleep in the open air, the doctor (Bobo) whom he wrote to, mentioned above, Claude Mairé, the local monk who lets him sleep in the monastery, Hirondelle, a former lieutenant who was downgraded for getting into a fight over a woman, Captain Masson, the son-in-law of a very rich, 100 year old, very tall Tuareg called Khokkinor who boasts of having killed numerous French soldiers and, of course, a woman.
Bobo describes the political situation as stupidity fawning on power and states anyone who sees things at all clearly must realise that everything is going to hell. No one will survive the next war. But our hero had come to find a simpler world. He learns that, out in the desert, there is a Frenchman called Nerval. He had been in a concentration camp and seen many horrors. He has now given up the world and gone to live in the desert, subsisting on a diet of only goat’s milk. Our hero wants to meet him. After his usual visit to the local brothel, he is off to Thaza, riding a temperamental donkey.
As well as Nerval, there is also a small Tuareg encampment. Mukazzem is off selling camels but he has left his wife Tehi, their son and their slave. Not surprisingly, Tehi and our hero become intimate. Our hero is determined to stay there so, with some help from Nerval, he builds a stone hut.
Nerval spends most of his day sitting, living only off goats’ milk and playing with his friend, a horned snake. However, he does engage in some conversation.
Why are we on Earth, I asked
Only those who have experienced the Light know that, said Nerval
About our hero he says it is you who are the abstract painting. With you everything is a sort of well ordered muddle and adds it is just as though I were the only normal person in the whole world, only the lunatic can be quite normal in our time.
Various people turn up – the doctor and the monk Mairé with four nuns, a German prospector and Mukazzem. Of course, it does not work out but our hero does get back.
what actually did you expect to find here, he asked.
Myself, I suppose
Did you find yourself, the doctor asked
No, but I found something else
I found the philosopher stone
What is it like?
The philosopher’s stone is absolute emptiness. It’s just like the inside of a rotten onion.
Our hero is obviously one of those troubled young men, like the author himself, who was looking for himself, trying to find some meaning to his life, and life in general, in an era when many people very much remembered the war and felt that things had not only not got better but there would be another, much worse war. He has not found this meaning back home in Norway so where better to look than in the Sahara desert?
Our hero is compared to various other people. The sensible one is the doctor, Bobo, who rightly points out that he and the lieutenant seem to spend much of their time helping people like Nerval and our hero who are looking for some meaning where there is none and end up getting intro trouble. Nerval takes it to extremes but even he has to face up to the realities of life. The German prospector wants only riches but he too fails in the implacable Sahara. Only the local, Mukazzem, can cope with the realities of the desert. Our hero survives but all he has really got out of it is that he needs is a good woman in his life, which seems to me to be a sensible outcome.
First published in 1957 by Henrik Groth
First published in English in 1959 by Allen and Unwin
Translated by Maurice Michael