Posts Tagged ‘People of the book’

Amin Maalouf: Balthasar’s Odyssey

December 26, 2021

     I’ve just re-read another of my favourites by Amin Maalouf, and find myself wondering what it is I find so captivating in his writing. The socio-cultural and historical essays such as Adrift I find very interesting not just because his analyses largely concur with mine, but because they are far-sighted and take me out of my limited Western perspective and comfort-zone. With the novels, it’s different, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is to do with the nature of storytelling being different in other cultures; I’m not widely-enough read to judge at the moment.

I cam to Maalouf via Samarcand, then Leo the African, then this book. The settings are exotic, in the sense of a historical past, either in what we would have called mediaeval times, or else the Renaissance, and located in the Middle East, and the European parts of the Muslim world at those times. There are also usually characters from all three religions of the book, living together reasonably peacefully and tolerantly (within the parameters of their age), so perhaps Maalouf is looking back to a golden age in more ways than one, compared with our times. There is obviously an overlap – wishful thinking? – with his non-fiction.

This story is set in 1665-66, with overtones of the year of the Beast (666) and end times; there is a mysterious book which comes into and leaves the possession of the narrator repeatedly, which allegedly tells how to learn the mysterious hundredth name of God (according to the Qur’an there are ninety-nine) which will bring about transformation. Our narrator ranges the known world in obsessive pursuit of the book, which brings calamity in its wake; even in his possession and open in front of him, somehow it is impossible to read more than a few pages…

Maalouf’s characters in many of his novels are seekers, wanderers about the world; they are thinkers and they meet other kindred spirits on their travels and discuss religious and philosophical notions. Not only questing after truth, they are also on personal journeys of self-discovery and seeking happiness. Balthasar is 40 – significant, perhaps – seeking a book, love, a purpose for his future. I think this is one of the aspects of this novel, and Maalouf’s writing in general that appeals to me: there are real ideas and insights woven into the fiction.

There’s also something in the style of the story-telling: it’s first person, done through dated journal entries, so at one level there’s the potential for it to be fairly dull in terms of no suspense or changing viewpoints. But it’s not, it works in the sense that it’s the mind of his character that Maalouf wants us to know, and there is suspense via the gaps between the journal entries, and the unexpected changes of location of our narrator. It’s definitely not a Western novel as most of us might understand the term. In a way, it’s how some of the earliest English fiction was crafted; perhaps Maalouf is deliberately imitating something like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year?

Finally, there’s a kind of meta-fiction here too, a book about a book or books, such as we find in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in various of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or in Gilbert Sinoué’s Livre de Saphir. There are books containing hidden or arcane knowledge for those who care to look or seek it, although perhaps not with the obsessiveness of the hero of this novel.

There’s a lot here. It’s not the average, evanescent stuff of much contemporary fiction – this is the third time I’ve read and enjoyed the novel, and it’s gone back on my shelves for the future.

Gilbert Sinoué: Le Livre de Saphir

April 1, 2019

81gEuxNWzxL._AC_UL436_This is quite a fascinating and gripping mystery, set in Spain in the final years of the Reconquista, shortly before the fall of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. It’s set around the search for the Sapphire Book, hidden somewhere by one of its last guardians; it purportedly contains proof of the existence of God. There is a whole set of cryptic clues which send the searchers on journeys all across the country. The searchers are three, one from each of the faiths of the book: an ageing rabbi, a middle-aged sheikh and a young monk, who each have been entrusted with a partial version of the clues: Sinoué is setting up his trio for dialogues about God, faith, religion and their three differing interpretations.

So, at one level it feels like a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but there’s rather more to this Egyptian-born writer’s novel than that. The focus is on the similarities and connections between the religions, which even the three adepts are not always aware of. Their quest is complicated when they are joined by a female who is a plant from the Inquisition who have gained knowledge of the quest and through subterfuge have obtained some of the clues: she is a clever and learned woman, confidant of the Queen, but is playing a dangerous game: as well as being in constant danger of giving herself away or being uncovered, she is tailed by the Inquisition and also a rival group linked to the Queen…

An atmosphere of sadness permeates the story as we know the Moors are about to be driven from Spain, and the Reconquista will shortly mean the expulsion or enforced conversion of Jews and Muslims. I was saddened by the suspicions between the three seekers, as well as the way trust gradually grew as they advanced in their journey, and came to realise how much more similar than different their faiths were; all of this makes the story so much more tragic, of course. At times the book felt worthy of a writer like Umberto Eco, and I did find echoes of his Baudalino occasionally.

The female agent improves the story as a foil to the men, and provides romantic interest as it is she and the monk who find their lives and fates entangled further than they expected. All are changed by their shared adventures: the monk becomes a killer and a lover, the treacherous woman comes to understand a purpose to her life and is disabused of her fanatical Christian opinions, and the Sheikh learns what forgiveness means.

I enjoyed the book for its atmosphere, for making me think, and for exploring the nature of faith. I was annoyed by one gross error which someone ought to have picked up: a reference to the work of Copernicus and his dangerous astronomical discoveries, when that learned monk would actually only have been 14 years old at the time the story takes place… and if I’ve whetted your interest, I’m sorry that the novel has not been translated into English.

People of the Book (1)

August 20, 2016

Quite a few years ago I came across the lovely concept of ‘the people of the book’, which is a term Muslims use to identify a commonality between themselves, Jews and Christians: we all share a belief in a single God and have communication from that God in scriptural writings which form a central place in our religions; furthermore, those scriptures share many stories and events. This would not be difficult, given that those faiths all arose and developed in the same area of the world. But the concept is an important one, and it has affected the ways in which Islam has responded to, and treated its ‘fellow religions’.

Islam seems generally, in the past, to have been pretty tolerant to the two other faiths. Clearly they weren’t regarded as equal to Islam, and Christians and Jews in Muslim territory were usually subject to various regulations and restrictions, and had to pay an extra tax, but were then allowed to get on with their lives and practise their faith relatively undisturbed. Christians do not ever seem to have been that tolerant, behaving rather with the belief that anyone who didn’t adhere to a particular flavour of it was damned, and needed forcibly to be converted so they could be ‘saved’, whatever that might mean…

A consequence of the Catholic reconquista of Spain in 1492 – the final re-conquest of all the territory from Muslims who had ruled large tracts of Spain for the previous seven centuries – was the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the newly recovered country. In my lifetime, as a young Catholic, prayers were regularly said ‘for the conversion of the Jews’…

I have been interested in the Qur’an as scripture sacred to a faith for many years. When I was a child, a workmate of my father’s, a recent immigrant from Pakistan, visited us and brought his copy to our house to show us; I was fascinated by the veneration with which he treated the holy book, and its physical beauty. In my later years I have read an English version of it – I found it difficult, because of the repetitive style. I’ve also listened to a recording of an English version a couple of times, which was much easier and more interesting – it is a book designed to be recited, after all.

Many of the stories we are perhaps familiar with from the Bible are also to be found in the Qur’an: the emphasis or the details may be slightly different as may the names, but they are shared, as they would be, coming from the same part of the world and the same peoples. Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned far more times here than in the New Testament.

It is a very repetitive book, as one might expect from a book intended to be memorised and recited; it is very exhortatory, the voice of God telling his people to do this or do that or else face the consequences, and those consequences are often dire. In my recollection it’s no more or less violent than the Old Testament, and I did have the strong impression that the strictness and the threats were tempered with mercy offered to anyone who sought or deserved it: Allah is the Beneficent and the Merciful. And just as so much of the Christian scripture is open to multiple interpretation, it’s clear from the modern Muslim world that their scripture is just as open…

For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet to be revered along with other prophets; he died but did not come back to life. And Muhammad is the last in the line of the prophets, and his revelation, revealed from God, is on a par with that of the other prophets, but perhaps has added significance because it is the last one.

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