The House of the Prophets, by Nicolas Saudray. New York: Doubleday & Co. 254 pp. $15.95. Nicolas Saudray, born in Normandy in 1942, has published four novels in France. This is the first to be published in the United States. Both crystalline and passionate, ``The House of the Prophets'' reads like a poetic last will and testament.
The hero, Gabriel, is an American-trained architect who has returned to his native land to make his mark and his statement. The landscape of his native land is a familiar one: fictional Marsania is a synthesis of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, as the fascinating ``Short Glossary for the Western Reader,'' appended to the novel, tells us. To Gabriel, it is more than familiar: ``I'd give all the music in the world for the braying of the donkey behind each door, the sound of these invisible creatures all read y to work in the soft dawn light.''
Marsania is breathtakingly beautiful. It is also a crucible of faith: Jew, Christian, and Muslim live side by side, each going about his business and his devotions. Until now, that is. Gabriel has returned to take part in a competition for a new mosque. His candidate will symbolize not only the common religious elements, but also the transcendent value of tolerance.
Tolerance must be put above religion or the region will be plunged into civil war. By the end of the novel it is. ``The House of the Prophets'' constitutes a carefully graded analysis of an ancient culture's slide into chaos, into the sea.
Gabriel's family, like his dream mosque, must weather the tensions of diversity. They are Christians. His sister marries a Muslim, to his mother's despair. He is betrothed to a Muslim. His young brother Mark is a scout -- i.e., a terrorist in training. As tolerance gives way to sectarianism, Mark assumes his manhood and leaves his own mark.
The visible manifestation of tolerance is beauty. Gabriel conceives of the descent into chaos as a slide from beauty into stupidity. Marsania, an old country, ``a patchwork of communities,'' seems a natural home for his architectural hymn to alliance, an alliance of faith and ``against all forms of mediocrity, dullness, and stupidity.'' Others share the vision, some only fitfully.
But not enough share it. Once the mosque has been chosen in the competition, the obstacle of its Christian authorship becomes insuperable. Gabriel allows a Muslim to father his ``child,'' his symbol of alliance, the House of the Prophets.
Gabriel's experience of tolerance is not simply political or expedient: It is existential, even epistemological. It allows him to be who he is -- a Christian and an artist in the Middle East -- and to know what he knows. He says, ``. . . you know perfectly well Marsania is a medley of colors, and the different elements highlight one another. You exist because I exist.''
He says this to his fianc'ee's father, a powerful Muslim who is set against him. Not suprisingly, Gabriel cannot marry his daughter, but not because of family opposition. Gabriel sees himself in the tradition of ``Le Corbusier, the Huguenot, building a Catholic church at Ronchamp; Bach, the Lutheran, taking the liberty of writing a Magnificat and a Mass in B minor; Faur'e, the unbeliever, begging God to welcome the dead; Montherland, the pagan, who couldn't help speaking the language of Christianity on
stage.'' Gabriel is too sophisticated for the lovely, simple Muslim girl who has embraced his faith. Their relationship falls apart and she enters a nunnery.
Gabriel wanders through his beloved city, nourishing his vision. He comes upon a crowd filling ``one of those little squares, which open like wells in the jumble of houses.'' A crowd is clapping rhythmically to the beat of a clarinet. It is a Nussari boy from the mountains; the Nussaris being a synthesis of mountain tribes, some of them Muslim dissenters. There was someone else:
It was a girl, hardly more than a child, to judge by her looks, clad in an old-rose-colored dress. Her hair was tinted with henna and the bangles around her ankles clinked as she moved. She was twirling in ever-diminishing circles, paying attention to no one, as though dancing for herself alone. It was a warm evening. The birds were falling asleep in the branches. You could make out the faces of women behind lattice windows. I held my breath.
Her name is Timsit. Timsit helps Gabriel give political body to his vision of alliance. Although too late to prevent the coming Muslim state, Gabriel, with Timsit as guide, visits the fastnesses of the Nussaris and forges an alliance between that mountain people and the Christians below.
The Muslims take over, and Gabriel goes to Europe. But he cannot stand to be away. He returns and sees his mosque against the horizon. ``It's not exactly as I'd imagined it. But it's my design all right, radiant in its reality.''
``The House of the Prophets'' reminds me of a piece of jade. The emerald light coming from within is refracted and dispersed according to the consistency of the impurities that give it its quality. Nicolas Saudray has written a gem of a novel.
Gabriel still nourishes his vision of the seven secrets of his city. He sees them as seven colors, ``the seven peoples who used to live here on good terms.'' The last words of the novel are stunningly beautiful:
Are these lost secrets? History has not said its last word.
And I make my way through the little winding streets without anger and without hatred; I walk under the arches and the corbels, moving slowly toward the heart of things.