Volume 8 in the Cycle of the Invisible
Twelve-year-old Felix is in despair. His wonderful mother, Fatou, who runs a warm, colourful café in the Parisian district of Belleville, has fallen into a deep depression and is now a mere shadow of her former self, once the embodiment of happiness. What has happened to her indomitable spirit? Has it gone back to Africa and the village where she was born? Felix sets off in search of it, embarking on a journey that takes him to the unseen sources of the world.
In the same vein as Oscar and the Lady in Pink and Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, tackles the mysteries of animism, the power of belief and the rituals of a profoundly poetic spiritual philosophy. He creates a boy’s hymn of love to his mother.
Le Figaro Magazine - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: the art of success »
The acclaimed author has added an eighth volume to his Cycle of the Invisible, a vast fictional enterprise centred on the world’s major religions and wisdoms.
A humanities scholar with a first-class degree from the Ecole Normale Supérieure, a PhD in Philosophy and now a member of both the Goncourt Academy and the Royal Academy of Belgium, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt boasts a CV to turn academics, philosophers and writers green with envy. And that’s before you factor in the figures: all his books shoot straight to the top of the charts in France. They’ve been translated into 45 languages and are sold in tens of millions of copies across the world. In a word, he’s a heavy-weight champion of literature.
To read and listen to Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is, then, to marvel at the strange and rare marriage of such wide-ranging learning to such extraordinary popularity with a readership that’s not necessarily discerning. Jean d’Ormesson somehow pulled off the same feat, and that’s not the only characteristic they share: like the author of At God’s Pleasure, Schmitt, a Catholic, has always been tormented by the search for the Absolute. In his beautiful book, Night of Fire, he described a mystical experience in the Hoggar Desert, which convinced him forever that God exists.
His new novella, Felix and the World’s Invisible Source, conveys this propensity to question the order of the universe. It constitutes volume 8 in the Cycle of the Invisible, a fictional enterprise in which Schmitt uses all kinds of characters to shed light on well-known and lesser-known religions as well as eastern wisdom. With Felix, animism now follows Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism. “I work hard to make sure the work hides the work,” he says. “Because I think you should always aim to be simple – which shouldn’t be confused with simplistic.” This sober reflection is the key to his extraordinary success.
J.R Van Der Plaetsen
Le Monde des Religions - « A lively, colourful novel »
A lively, joyful, colourful and multi-faceted novel. The eighth story in the Cycle of the Invisible overflows with life-affirming energy. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, a French-Belgian novelist, playwright and director, has added a new opus to his series of novellas exploring the world’s spiritualities. A prolific author, he has had his work translated into 45 languages, won a plethora of international awards and has also won world renown for his plays. Consisting of eight independent novellas, The Cycle of the Invisible includes Oscar and the Lady in Pink and Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran. Worldwide sales stand at over 10 million copies.
This new novella explores the mysteries of animism. Fatou, born in Senegal, runs a Parisian café in the district of Belleville and leads a merry life with her regulars and young son, Felix. Everything changes, however, when the young woman falls prey to Kafkaesque troubles with the authorities and a shady matter of debt and she sinks into a bottomless depression. With the help of technicolour loveable characters (like Madame Simone, a transvestite prostitute and frustrated accountant), Felix takes his mother back to her homeland on a journey of initiation to try to cure her. This return to Senegal and the providential intervention of a local healer saves Fatou. She manages to recover from grief and guilt that nobody knew about and to touch base with the spirituality of her ancestors from whom she had cut herself off. Life without imagination (as opposed to reason), for the healer, is a life that has become disconnected.
In this resolutely optimistic book, the world is transfigured by spirituality, its beauty is revealed and it becomes bearable. Reunited in a metamorphosed, fantastical Paris, Fatou’s café family will find happiness.
Télé Z - « A book overflowing with wisdom! »
In the Parisian district of Belleville, Fatou N’Diaye runs a delightful bar: the “At Work!”, a useful name for excuses like “I’m at…” The mother of Felix, the narrator, is a happy sort who enjoys a joke and has a gift for inspiring joie-de-vivre in her regular customers. She also has a way of baptising people and objects with names as funny as they are perspicacious. One of her regulars, a collector of dictionaries, has thus been dubbed “Robert Chambers!”
Alas, one day, her neighbour, the grocer Mr Tchombé, falls ill and suggests she buys his shop to expand her own enterprise. It’s the start of trouble for her: Fatou sinks into depression and becomes completely mute; the walking dead, for her distraught son. Felix appeals unsuccessfully to his Uncle Bamba, a dandy whom he admires. Then he goes to his father, Felicien Saint Esprit. They decide to go back to Fatou’s native country. Might a visit to a local healer help her recover?
In this humorous fable, the author takes us to the banks of the River Senegal where spirits are everywhere. Invisible forces are at work: the genie of the river, the genie of mists. Even in Paris, a city enfeebled by emptiness, the mediation allows Nature’s vital energies to be felt.
This benevolent and joyful evocation of animism, the eighth book in the Cycle of the Invisible, is just what’s needed to counteract winter’s gloom. A book that’s easy to read but nevertheless overflowing with wisdom.
Sud Ouest Dimanche - « Happiness can also exist under a baobab tree »
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt continues his joyful exploration of spiritualities, now in a novella that deciphers animism.
The Cycle of the Invisible now consists of eight short stories, all independent but which all examine the world’s religions and spiritualities. Little gems, these layered stories can be read and reread and will always reveal new facets. We’ve had Judaism (Noah’s Child), Sufism (Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran) and others; this is the story of Felix aged 12 and a few weeks (the author will be presenting his book on 6 February at the Mollat de Bordeaux Bookshop). His mother, Fatou, runs a café up in Belleville, a district of Paris. Local life is picturesque thanks to its appealing inhabitants: Ms Tran, Mrs Simone, Robert Chambers whose real name has long been forgotten, et al. Fatou, in despair at having let down her neighbour, a grocer, by refusing to buy Paradise of Figs, his shop, falls from obsessions into depression. Felix finds her manically scrubbing the bar surfaces and mopping the floors, using up to 25 litres of disinfectant per week, as though seeking the world’s eternal purity.
In trying to help his mother, Felix gradually enters into the subtleties of her origins, taking the reader with him. So what, if Uncle Bamba isn’t genealogically his uncle? Dandy that he is, he goes all out for Fatou. So what, if the flighty Saint-Esprit abandoned Fatou the moment Felix was conceived? He’s the one who will take the young woman back to Senegal. There, in the absence of an all-seeing, all-hearing marabout, Papa Loum, the healer, will reconnect Fatou to her roots, teaching her to see “the invisible that is the underside of the visible” and to understand that her freedom is in herself, that she can invent herself and build herself as she likes: she can create herself through imagination, whose powers are further reaching than the intellect itself of limited scope, and with a little poetry and whimsy, which have more meaning for wellbeing than deep thought. If Fatou wants there to be baobabs in Paris, she just has to imagine them there!
ISABELLE DE MONTVERT-CHAUSSY
Ouest France - « Addictive expertise! »
Felix, a little Parisian lad, adores his mum. Fatou runs a bar frequented by Madame Simone the transvestite, Mr “Chambers” the dictionary fanatic, and a host of other delicious characters. When Fatou falls silent, Bamba arrives from Senegal to exorcise the curse. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s pen bubbles over with invention. This story rounds off a series on spirituality. His fans will now go hungry; newcomers will discover an addictive expertise!
La Voix du Nord - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s keen, complicit humour draws us in »
Felix and the World’s Invisible Source is the eighth in the writer’s series the Cycle of the Invisible. Over and above the obvious themes of religion and belief, it’s (again) about hope and humanity.
Here is an author with true talent and an extraordinary ability to plunge us straight into his chosen atmosphere, the daily life and tics and habits of his characters. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s keen, complicit humour draws us in. With irrefutable intelligence, he shows “an optimism pegged to the soul” and a desire to see “light even in the darkness”. His latest book, Felix and the World’s Invisible Source, is the perfect illustration.
This eighth opus of the Cycle of the Invisible, which includes Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran (2001), invites us to cross the threshold of a Parisian café and access the thoughts of a twelve-year-old boy faced with his mother’s sudden depression. A “zombie” has taken her place. She is “dead” inside. Words have deserted her, and love, humour and tenderness, too. Felix feels abandoned, his only hope being an “uncle” as elegant as he is elusive, and a “father” he knows nothing about and can’t be certain loves him.
Around this despair and this absence of life cluster a set of café regulars, all skilfully drawn. The backdrop is Paris, then there’s Africa, half-fantasy, half-nightmare, as the target destination. There’s also a kind of echo of Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us, as Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt freely admits: “Romain Gary belongs in my personal firmament. He helped me dare to take on human tenderness.”
Love and truth finally win the day. How could it be otherwise with optimism like Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s? A feel-good book for us readers, then: lucky us! “I can’t, for the life of me, see any point in depressing my contemporaries!” the author retorts, gleefully.
Cathobel - « Once again, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt takes readers by surprise »
This is the story of a resurrection: Fatou’s, as experienced through the eyes of her twelve-year-old son Felix. It’s also a journey to her Senegalese roots and to the very depths of her soul.
Firstly, it’s a play, then a news item, and finally, a story. And, maybe, a family is born out of it.
Once again, Eric-Emmanuel takes readers by surprise: close the book after the last page and it’ll go on spooling through your head. It takes us to the invisible, here given the tantalising colours of ancestral African wisdom. More importantly, it asks some critical questions.
Can you deprive a child of its father? Can you create a binary mother-son relationship, imbued with the kind of affection that bonds Fatou and Felix, but which is enough to raise him and bring him to adulthood? Can you deprive a father of his son?
Fatou never speaks of her childhood and her youth protected by the baobab tree, she never invokes the violent tragedy that comes to light under the auspices of a wise man, the local healer. But you have to know about and take responsibility for your roots to progress fully in life; you have to perform the rituals that mark life’s stages with or without cult objects, which are only the means to an end. On the banks of the river, the family is revealed: the shrine we came from, the circle created by our loving relationships, the couple whose love gave life.
To receive a name, to name things – plants, animals, humans – may be a gift for those things and for oneself. Fatou’s bar is judiciously name the “At Work” (“Where are you, honey? I’m at work…”). With Fatou and Felix, the trees of Paris become supplicants and the tarmac becomes sand where they leave their footprints. It’s no accident that Felix (“joy”) is the son of Felicien (“joy” again) Saint-Esprit, who reads the Bible, and of Fatou (short for “Fatima”).
L'Avenir (Belgique) - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s unseen abilities »
Felix and the World’s Invisible Source wasn’t really planned. The novella “just came to” Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt this summer.
Picture if you will little Felix: a sturdy twelve-year-old with curly black hair and a sunny smile, the image of a happy child. He’s happy like his mother, pretty Fatou who runs a café in the Parisian district of Belleville judiciously named the “At Work!”
Having said a few months ago that he wanted to slow down (slightly), Schmitt has already reappeared accompanied by a little boy with an African heritage, an heir to Oscar or Mr Ibrahim, two huge successes in his Cycle of the Invisible. “This novel just came to me this summer,” the author tells me. “I’d been looking for a way to tackle the subject of animism for years. I was trying to understand it rationally, but you can only access it via the imagination. It was when I was rereading African poetry, especially that of Léopold Sédar Senghor, that I had a sudden epiphany. And finally, I was able to write this novel.”
Animism isn’t a religion as such like Christianity or Islam, which he dealt with in earlier novels in the Cycle. It’s both a way of thinking and a spirituality, a way of seeing the world. “All of us are animists when we’re children. When we tap on a door we’ve bumped into, we give it a kind of personality. But it’s mostly a way of seeing beyond what the world shows us. It’s about giving a soul to a tree, the wind or a river. It’s about thinking that the dead haven’t gone away because their souls are still here.”
A single mother (she left Felix’s father before he was born), Fatou fled her country and chose to forget her African soul. But a curious illness soon turns her into one of the “living dead”, and Felix has to rescue her with the help of an uncle who turns up out of the blue and a father almost too good-looking to be true. “I wanted to tell the story of someone who had been uprooted and who chose to cut herself off from her past. Even if you realise why, you can see she lost herself by abandoning the words and world of her childhood. But it’s also the story of the closeness of a mother and son… up to the point where Felix realises that he also has responsibilities to shoulder with regard to his mother. Above all, he understands that he can’t be all men for her, just her son…”
We’re also introduced to a lively, sassy group of characters who gather around these two heroes, from Belleville to Senegal and from the philosophising regular bar-propper to Papa Loum, a local African healer. “He teaches Felix one basic fact: Africa is about imagination and Europe is about reason. I really think our western world lacks space, poetry and imagination.”