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Monday, December 10, 2007

An author worth looking up

I've just finished a book called Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. Another great book by a great writer, some of whose other novels include Balthazar's Odyssey, Samarkand, The Gardens of Light and The Rock of Tanios. All these are terrific reads.

Maalouf writes historical novels. His obsession lies with the age of empire; not just western empires, but eastern ones too, and especially, how they clashed and melted and merged. Given the current geopolitical situation, this is healthy stuff to think about. Leo the African, which is based on the life story of a genuine historical figure, begins with the fall of Granada when the (Inquisition-lovin') Spanish conquered it; then moves to Fez, then on to Cairo just as the Ottomans show up to trash the place; before winding up in Rome, as it's about to be swamped by German Lutherans. It seems astonishing that one guy could see the collapse and sacking of no fewer than three major cities in one lifetime, but there you go. Mixed in with all this is the engaging human story of Hasan (later Leo)'s own life, family, wife, children etc. It's a fairly astonishing piece of storytelling, and it just flows right along.

All of Maalouf's books have this richness, and this momentum. He's from Lebanon, poised precariously between east and west, so I suppose his writing reflects the comsmopolitanism (is that a word?) of his worldview. In other words, a lot goes in, so a lot comes out. Samarkand is about Omar Khayyam, who wrote the Rubayyait; it takes place both centuries ago, when Omar wrote it, and now, when the manuscript itself is at the heart of a mystery. Balthazar's Oddysey again takes in the 17th-century Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and England. His books are always full of people going somewhere, and chatting breezily as they do so, and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

I also hugely enjoyed The Gardens of Light, a book about a boy named Mani who grows up in the third century AD in this strange, ultra-ascetic order of men--think of an uber-Taliban before there was any Islam--and who rejects it to go off and become a sort of all-purpose mystic. Eventually he founds a religious/philosphical school called Manicheanism, which is rejected as blasphemous by just about everyone you can imagine. Again, it's impressive the way Maalouf intertwines strands of philosophy with everyday, dirt-under-your-fingernails concerns.

So, great books, a great writer.

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