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.”
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.
Published today in the Colorado Review is my review of Blas de Roblès’ novel Island of Point Nemo. Read the full, in-depth book review here.