Lévy's latest book was not prompted by political theory, but brute fact: the murder of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in January 2002. Lévy, 54, was in the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, on a mission for the French government, when he learned that Pearl was dead, and decided there and then to write about why.
His guide into this netherworld was Pearl, whom he calls a "posthumous friend" and to whom he ascribes many of his own characteristics: "A Jew of the left, a progressive ... a friend of the uncounted, the universal orphan, the disinherited." Pearl, Lévy says, was a firm believer in the possibility of a moderate Islam, one that Lévy himself sees in a battle to the death with radical believers from al-Qaeda. He follows the journalist as he pursues a shadowy figure named Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, a former Brooklyn-based imam whom Lévy calls a "guru" of bin Laden's. He meets Pearl's contacts, spends time in the unheated, two-room hovel where Pearl was held and murdered nine days after his kidnapping. "I decided the best way to tell this story was step by step, even if that meant contradictions," he says during an interview in the office of the grand Left Bank apartment he shares with his wife, the actress and singer Arielle Dombasle. Beside his couch sits a large hollow bronze head of Lenin, its hinged temples left open to show nothing inside, as if to demonstrate Lévy's keen distaste for dogma of whatever kind. "In an obscure affair like this one, there is no final truth," he says. "It was important that the author, who was searching and sometime erring, be present."
As an admirer of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Lévy blurs the line between fact and fiction, as he did with his 1988 book The Last Days of Charles Baudelaire. "Facts when facts are known, or it is possible to know them; imagination when facts are not available," he says of his method. Lévy says he only resorted to pure conjecture two or three times in the book, but it is up to the reader to discern those moments. His harrowing account of Pearl's decapitation by a Yemeni henchman includes unknowable embellishments: "As the Yemeni killer grabs and tears the collar of his shirt, he thinks of other hands. Of caresses. Of games from his boyhood." Lévy also conjures up the thoughts of the admitted and since convicted ringleader, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, on the restless night before he sprung his trap on Pearl. Sheikh, Lévy finds, is a "perfect Englishman" of Pakistani origin, a chess player and champion arm wrestler, a brilliant student at the London School of Economics who embraced radical Islam during a stint in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Lévy knows from court testimony that Sheikh shaved his beard and bought Gucci shoes, a Breitling watch and Ray-Ban sunglasses to disguise himself before meeting Pearl. But Lévy can only imagine his thoughts about Pearl's face: "rather open for a Jew; rather clever for an American; bizarrely curious."