La goutte d’or (The Golden Droplet) by Michel Tournier follows Idriss from the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala to Marseille, France. One day, a French couple arrives in a Land Rover, and the woman with blond hair takes a picture of Idriss. Because photography is taboo in this village, Idriss feels a strong desire to retrieve his photo from the blond haired woman.
Only a short distance away from Tabelbala is a major Algerian city. Everything is different there. The natural history museum has an exhibit dedicated to the Sahara. Idriss knows that his village is on display, but none of it feels familiar. Most of the Algerians at the museum are just as ignorant of life in the oasis as was the blond haired woman who took Idriss’ picture.
Photography is front and center in this novel. Tournier explores the relationship between portrait-making and colonialism. Idriss is a model everywhere he goes. Nearly everyone he meets thinks he represents “foreignness”, “orientalism”, and the Maghreb region.
Idriss’ photo is at once specific and universal. He must have two forms of identification with him at all times, but the people he meets think Idriss represents an entire race. Indeed, mannequin artists decide to make a mannequin of Idriss’ profile for a French department store with a large North African clientele.
But the racism goes both ways. Every French woman Idriss meets resembles the woman with the blond hair. He wants to ask all of them whether they have Idriss’ picture. In Tournier’s novel, the “other” is acknowledged only as a portrait. A picture is a flat and lifeless reproduction of one moment in a person’s life. It can’t represent the entirety of a person’s identity, let alone every individual in a particular group. Idriss looks at his government IDs, but he can’t recognize himself in them. He feels like the photos have taken away some of his humanity. He is objectified and commodified. Most terrifying is the realization that his image may outlive him.
In The Golden Droplet, most scenes are linked to one another through “face” imagery. Idriss’ pilgrimage to Marseille is not only a journey of self-discovery but one of self-forgetfulness. He feels like an actor in a play. A number of characters in the novel reflect on the human face and what it represents
Unfortunately, Tournier is way too heavy handed with his imagery. From the very beginning, the reader knows the message the author is trying to convey. Sometimes, Tournier paints a picture (pun intended) and then proceeds to explain it to us. The last third of the book is overwhelmingly didactic. It leaves nothing to the imagination.
In general, though, Tournier’s novel is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. It is one of the first books I’ve read that has explored the hostility between ethnic groups in Algeria. If you are interested in modern post-colonial French literature, I recommend The Golden Droplet. It certainly would help to read Tournier’s novel alongside Emmanuel Lévinas’ philosophy. Lévinas had quite a lot to say about faces.