42. ‘Samarkand’ by Amin Maalouf

The Book:

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

‘Samarkand’ spans centuries, relating the turbulent history of Persia (modern day Iran), from 11th century revolutions to 20th century political scandals. The first half of the story revolves around the poet Omar Khayyam, who is given a beautiful leather book in which to write. As the years pass he fills it: the book becomes the only complete manuscript of his famous Rubiyat.

The second half of the story is about an American, Benjamin O. Lesage, who travels to Persia to track down the missing manuscript. He has strong family links to the country, and his middle name is Omar, after the poet. Whilst he is in the country he falls in love with a Persian princess and finds himself embroiled with underground rebels, intent on throwing out all the conflicting foreign influences that control the Persian government. The manuscript, sadly, meets with a sorry end: it goes down with the Titanic.

I loved both halves of the story for different reasons: the first for its beauty and mysticism, and especially Khayyam’s philosophy of life. Wine, poetry, love and nature dominate his being, and yet he is always being chased for advice and drawn into petty court scandals that do not interest him. He comes across as a tragic character; none of the people around him will just let him be, and they end up threatening his life because he won’t engage the way they want him to.

The second half was often dense and political, but I didn’t find myself wanting to give up on it. The writing is cleverly and beautifully crafted, so as to keep the reader’s attention without pandering to them. The sinking of the Titanic was particularly well done: it is narrated calmly and quickly, because our characters are in first-class and are thus ushered off the foundering ship straight away. Such an iconic tragedy is here seen from a distance and consequently loses some of its horror, especially since the real pain we are made to feel is about the loss of the manuscript. It’s a very unusual way of approaching such a terrible subject.

I found it fascinating to read such a carefully woven part-fact, part-fiction account of a period of history I know very little about. It’s also interesting to read about the tortured history of a country that is still racked by turmoil and unrest. This is a multi-layered, engaging novel and I would highly recommend it.

“…my only ambition is that one day I will have an observatory with a rose garden and that I will be able to throw myself into contemplatin the sky, a goblet in my hand and a beautiful woman at my side.”

The Background:

I picked this one up in Waterstones on one of my many trips. I chose it as soon as I saw the name Omar Khayyam – I have two copies of his Rubaiyat, and it is stunning.


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