Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan and Jonathan Wright (translator)

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Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan and Jonathan Wright (translator)

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: An intriguing and controversial historical novel about the travels and spiritual quest of a healer and monk set in the troubled times of the 5th Century and his temptations by the devil, Azazeel. The winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848874275

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An archaeologist in a time and place close to that of modern troubled Syria discovers thirty scrolls. These are the writings of a Coptic Christian monk born into Roman dominated Egypt in AD391. A door thus opens into an ancient world and the emerging vista stretches from the present into the distant past, as if eliciting an omnipresent dimension to reality. The fluent evocative prose flows like a meandering river or a ribbon connecting continuously the present moment with the ancient world. A panorama emerges dominated by Rome and Constantinople and extends to Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch.

The reader is introduced to Hypa, an Egyptian monk, a healer who is writing to be free of troubles and seemingly tormented to write these scrolls by a being called Azazeel within his imagination and within his spirit. Azazeel comes across as a provocative yet interesting figure and requires that the whole story of Hypa be revealed. An intriguing variety of people, important to Hypa emerge including his own family, his mentor and friend Nestorius, a prominent theologian and Bishop of Constantinople and his rival, Cyril of Alexandria who accuses the latter of heresy. Cyril is engaged in a war of persecution against Jews, heretics and pagans. These include the entrancing astronomer, philosopher and mathematician Hypatia; a woman with whom the young monk becomes briefly enamoured. His spiritual quest is diverted by the charms of a pagan widow, Octavia to whom he appears as an incarnation of Poseidon and has a further erotic infatuation with the singer, Martha. His journey of the soul, with multiple temptations accompanies his travels and meanderings from his homeland in southern Egypt, to Alexandria and on Jerusalem and beyond.

The central figure of Hypa comes across as still, hence people respond to his inner beauty. He is in essence a poet, a hermit and a healer. He is undergoing an inner and outer journey, learning as he travels. The questions he asks are as important as the answers he finds. He cries out like David in the Psalms, or the Old Testament prophets like Job and Jonah. So, he comes to understand that coming to terms with his past is important in dwelling in the present and moving towards the future. Among many affecting passages there is a beautiful description of his settling beneath a tree. As he meditates, he almost becomes at one with the tree itself and reflects upon the mystical teachings of Pythagoras of Samos, in the sixth century B.C.

Jonathan Wright's translation captures with clarity the commotion surrounding the various beliefs and heresies of the times. This novel is original, powerful and sui generis. Beside the historical and religious elements, it is insightful into the nature of healing. Language and associated cultures too feature strongly in the tale. Hypa knows Greek and Hebrew as well as his native Coptic but writes in Aramaic. Then there is the indifferent beauty of the landscape of desert monasteries and coasts haunted by ancient pagan gods and goddesses. Human passions, noble and vain are portrayed against a varied panorama that depicts the destruction of temples and the serenity of fertile pastures. This text is a necessary read for those who search for the seeds of tolerance in the history of a land that has suffered intense and frequent devastations. It is a timely reminder of the great debt our Western World owes to prevenient Arab civilisations and the enormous spiritual and cultural riches it has bequeathed to us.

Thanks to Atlantic Books for furnishing the review copy.

If this book appeals then you might like to try An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley and The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars by Stephen O'Shea.

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