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Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Book review: Samarkand, Amin Maalouf (1992)

This historical fantasy was published originally in French in 1989 (a mere decade after the revolution in Iran). It tells a story based on the life of the poet and scientist Omar Khayyam and it also supposes the fate of an original manuscript of his poetry. The city named in the title was where the poet spent parts of his youth, although he was born in Nishapur, a city in what today is called Iran.

Maalouf is a dedicated chronicler of a creative genius he holds in high esteem but while he is no doubt well-informed I suspect that records from the time the first half of the book deals with – the 11th and early 12th centuries – are not perfectly reliable as historical sources. Maalouf has some decided ideas about things to do with the figure of Khayyam, such as the origin of the word “assassin”, so I presume that he has followed his own head in order to develop a plot that allows him to make the points that he chooses to make in the book. I am prepared to offer ignorance as the cause of my hesitation to venture any further comments as to the accuracy of Maalouf’s version of events. What I can say with confidence is that Maalouf thematically ties the two sections of the book together mainly using characters he invents. The work is thus artful and well-designed and the language used in each of the parts is appropriate for the purpose.

The fate of the manuscript is present like a base note in a musical composition, often lying just below the surface of consciousness though sometimes emerging into the melody like some talisman of hope for a forgotten people.

It seems that in real life an ability to accurately attribute any of the poems in the collection we possess today to Khayyam the historical figure has to be questioned. Many, if not all, of the poems in the collection that is available to buy in bookstores under the title ‘The Rubaiyaat’ were written by people other than Khayyam. Maalouf’s fictional ploy is to posit a reliable, original copy of the collection, a manuscript that has survived for 800 years and has to be rediscovered by a young American named Banjamin Lesage in order to enable the poet to be suitably honoured and acclaimed. This novel is, in a very real sense, a work of devotion and it goes to the heart of the author’s idea of himself as a Lebanese living in Paris.  It is, in short, sincere and earnest.

It is a fairly conventional novel with a satisfying structure and colourful characters. There is a good deal of romance and intrigue that is underpinned by a species of indulgent orientalism of a kind familiar to people who have seen in an art gallery any of the many late-19th century European oil paintings that are available to view and that take their inspiration from the Middle East. Precisely, the first half of the novel deals with events taking place in Central Asia and the Middle East (Samarkand is in modern-day Uzbekistan and Isfahan, another city that features in the story, is in modern-day Iran).

The second half of the book is focalised through the character of Lesage who, in the years around the turn of the 20th century, travels twice to Persia to find and bring back to Europe the manuscript that Khayyam was found making in the first half of the book. While in Teheran he becomes involved in the events surrounding the Parliament that was established despite the wishes of the two major powers – Britain and Russia – before the shah was returned to absolute power.

Historically, Maalouf is on firmer ground in these sections of the book, and for a person like me with no knowledge of the events of those years (especially the years between 1908 and 1912) the narrative provided here offered a good primer to add information to my knowledge of modern Iran. The second half of the novel was somewhat burdened stylistically by tropes that appear to have been stolen from mediocre novels of the 18th century. I am certain that this was done by Maalouf quite consciously; the style used in this part of the novel differs markedly from the style used in the first half. But even given this conscious authorial ventriloquism, overall the novel does seem a bit old-fashioned when read now, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

As in the first half of the novel, in the second half the manuscript that had been begun in Samarkand lies at the centre of events, this time in an environment enlivened by contact with notables of the era; Benjamin had been introduced to one of Iran’s most prominent intellectuals by a French uncle, and this connection leads to others which prove useful to him. In this part of the book themes that had appeared in the first half – such as Khayyam’s inability to tolerate cruelty, his respect for the sanctity of life, his lack of interest in mundane concerns, and his unimpeachable honesty: the things that made him so welcome as a companion for the rulers in his own day – reappear in the context of the trials Iran faced at the beginning of the 20th century.

This kind of characterisation is artful and satisfying, and it points to the author’s willingness to face the sometimes-uncomfortable realities that existed in the region 100 years ago and that (from all the evidence) still exist now. Underneath all of the thematic development that he carries out lies the author’s desire for justice for the people of the region. This aspiration was as important in the 1920s as it was in the 1980s, and it is still important today.

It’s salutary to take note of the date this book was originally published, especially in the light of events that would overtake the world in the decades following that point in time. The character of Hassan Sabbah, who Khayyam befriends early in the tale, morphs into something quite different from the man the poet originally got to know. Sabbah turns into an influential figure and, although I hesitate to list too many details so as not to give the game away, it’s true to say that he occupies something like a key dramatic role in opposition to the ascetic and unworldly Khayyam, a man more interested in learning and in art than in influencing the tide of history. In fact, Maalouf casts Khayyam as a kind of Spok and Sabbah as his nemesis.

Parts of the book are a bit hard to follow and I wasn’t sure whether the author had not forgotten some of the facts he had earlier deployed in the narrative. I seemed to remember that Sultan Malikshah’s second son Barkiyaruk had died in childhood but later he emerged as an actor in a succession crisis. This kind of plot device is common in this rewarding and complex novel which in its first half relies on an omniscient narrator who is completely reliable and who has no role to play in the story.

This book should appeal to people who like TV dramas like ‘Game of Thrones’ and movies such as the films in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ franchise. The matter of the value of art is also explored, in both parts of the book, and in the light of these aspects of the plot you would have to say that Maalouf is a committed Humanist. There are other questions that need answering for the reader apart from those to do with the careers of kings and the loyalties of mullahs. Firstly: what will happen to the manuscript? And will Benjamin, like Khayyam, marry the woman he loves? And what of the future for this rich Westerner from Annapolis? Khayyam lived to a great age, will Benjamin resemble him in this regard, too?

Maalouf was born in Lebanon but has lived in France for a long time. In that country he is feted and his novels are acclaimed. He is less well-known in the Anglosphere and this is a shame as he appears to me to be someone we should have been watching in the years leading up to 11 September 2001. The story in the first half of the novel could have provided Western leaders with a guide to their conduct on the international stage, and if people like George Bush and John Howard and Tony Blair had paid attention and heeded Maalouf’s message from the early 90s the world might have avoided the disasters we have seen in Iraq and Syria.

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