Scattered Crumbs (Iraq)

book coverby Muhsin Al-Ramli
translated from the Arabic by Yasmeen S. Hanoosh

I didn’t like this little novel. If you don’t like Oprah picks, you probably won’t like it either. The jacket says it’s a satiric novel. I didn’t get that. It wasn’t funny. It was just depressing. There were a few scenes so gross they unfortunately stayed with me and I’m still trying to bleach them out of my mind. I didn’t like that the author chose to make the only gay character in the book a child molester and a pervert. All robins are birds, but…

My Objections and Such

The character I disliked the least was an artist called Quasim, which unfortunately reminded me of the servant Mash Quasim in the Iranian novel Dear Uncle Napoleon, which I loved. (In this Iran-Iraq war, Iran wins hands-down.) Anyway, this Quasim is a political liberal who is asked by his very conservative father to paint a portrait of the Leader. (Shades of the Dear Leader in North Korea. Ugh.) But he can’t. He tries, but he just can’t because he hates him so much.

map of IraqHis father, on the other hand, is so swayed by all the Leader’s rhetoric that he brags to everyone who will listen about his great-grandfather who shot “the English son-of-a-bitch” officer back before he was born, and calls everything that he likes “nationan”, his mispronunciation of “national”.

His sons are more clear-headed, with three of them deserting from the army. The artist is one, the pervert is another. The pervert, of course, is manipulative and manages to land on his feet, but the artist knows he isn’t going to survive this regime. It’s no place for honest men. And of course, it’s never been any place for women. The women in the story are depressingly powerless, fawning over their sons even when they behave in a reprehensible fashion.

The Broken Frame

Saddam Hussein

So Damn Insane…er…Saddam Hussein, “the Leader” from 1979 to 2003

The story starts out with the narrator living in Spain, and wondering where his cousin, another army deserter, has gone. But if this is a frame story, it’s a broken one, because we never learn what has happened to Mahmood. There is no end frame to the story.

“I left my country re-tracing Mahmood’s steps, searching for him, dreaming that we might do something and become men worthy of respect, so that afterward women–like my cousin Warda, who moved from husband to husband until she ended under Ismael the liar–would search for us.”

What a shame that she can’t be a woman worthy of respect on her own–no, she has to be attached to a man like an appendage. Ugh and triple ugh.

Not being an Iraqi, I found the references to the Leader and the war too oblique for me to get a good sense of place, or history, or current events. In fact, it took me a while to remember Saddam. I kept thinking of Ayatollahs.

What I Did Enjoy

The way that the artist, Quasim, ends up wearing the red, white, and green of the Iraqi flag from his painting–is this a hint that he is more of a patriot than his brother who sheds his blood in the war? The savage mockery of Iraqi leaders when the parents of martyred soldiers receive telegrams of “Congratulations”, and the families of deserters are charged for the bullets it costs to shoot them.

The hedgehog needle that lodges in the throat of the patriarch and can never be removed, and how it starts bleeding (like a stigmata–wrong religion, obviously, but I thought of it) when his sons are killed.

The man writes well, or at least is translated competently, but I can’t recommend this book.

One bullet.

Gentlemen of the Road (Azerbaijan)

book coverby Michael Chabon

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Jews With Swords

That, by the way, is the author’s working title for this novel. It’s a madcap romp through the perilous years around 900 CE, in and around what will become Azerbaijan. The “Gentlemen of the Road” are a group akin to “Ladies of the Night”–they’re actually bandits.

There is a white Frank called Zelikman, who is a Radanite Jew, wandering the Caucuses and the Middle East. There is a black Abyssinian called Amram, who is also Jewish. (Abyssinia will later become Ethiopia and Eritrea, and these people have a mythology about being descended from the pairing of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.) There is a horse called Hillel, who is a mix of Arabian and local, who is the best friend of Zelikman, along with his beloved hat.

Map of KhazariaThe Gentlemen of the Road soon meet up with a spoiled local stripling prince called Faliq, or Little Elephant. His entire family has been murdered by a usurper to the Bek’s throne and he has fled, in the company of his trusty mahout, or elephant handler. The mahout wants to deliver the prince safely to distant relatives, but the prince wants to escape and go wreak vengeance on the usurper. Although his chances of success are very slim.

When the mahout takes an arrow to the head, it is up to the Gentlemen of the Road to tilt at this windmill and see the quixotic quest through to its satisfying finale. The two Jews are fascinated by the prince’s legendary Kingdom of Khazaria, which is a polyglot empire said to be ruled by a converted Jew. This is one of the reasons they lend their lancet and their axe and their hooves, respectively, to the cause of Faliq.

Historical Goodness

khazaria banner

 

 

 

Keep your phone or world atlas handy as you read this novel: I ran into lots and lots of historical peoples and places I didn’t know about. And I loved it! Besides

  • Sorbs
  • Khazaria
  • Radanites
  • Arsiyah and etc.

little elephantI found myself running into configurations of countries and ethnicities that I did not recognize. Being so firmly rooted in the second millennium, it was wonderfully interesting and a bit shocking to see how different things were in the first millennium. For example,  Zelikman is a Frank. You interpret that, as a modern person, to mean he is French. But he comes from a family of physicians in Regensberg! Bavaria. Southern Germany. That messed with my head. Also, a black Jewish Kingdom in Africa. A country of people as mixed as modern-day America, and a Jewish throne which employs Muslim mercenaries to defend it.

Kievan Rus longshipIn addition, the plot involved multiple raids by murderous “Northmen” with pale skin and blonde or red hair, who came in longships. Naturally I thought they were Vikings. Nope. Russians. The Kievan Rus. (Ukrainians, really.) Whoa! Talk about mind-blowing.

Since learning is one of the principal pleasures of reading for me, and I always enjoy a novel with a strong sense of place, I loved this book. If I were a dog I would have rolled in it.

Zeligman’s weapon is an oversized lancet, a needle-like sword even thinner than a fencing foil. Why? Because Jews in his country are not allowed to carry weapons of any kind.

The Style

A word about the style. I’ve never read anything by Chabon before, so I don’t know if he typically writes like this. But he seems to be trying to be the Jane Austen of 952. For some reason this didn’t bother me, although I did have to read several paragraph-length sentences more than once or twice:

illustration from the book“On the Substitution of One Angel, and one Cause for Another

All that remained of the temple, reared by Alexander during his failed conquest of Caucasia and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods, was a wind-“worn pedestal and the candle stub of a fluted column, against which a would-be ruffian named Hanukkah sat propped with his right hand over the wound in his sizable belly, as he had sat for two long days and night waiting with mounting impatience for the angel of death.”

Not since I read The Secret Garden as a child have I enjoyed pen-and-ink illustrations so much. Also, the chapter headings like the one above.

Rating: Five healing herbs! I loved this book.