IN THE remarkable opening to this remarkable novel, the great oriental mystic and Sufi poet Omar Khayyam is treated like a medieval Salman Rushdie. Arriving in Samarkand from his home in Persia, Khayyam is recognised in the street as a ribald poet who writes about wine and women and whose philosophy mocks Islam. Street toughs declare him an infidel and he is carted off to the judge to be given an appropriate Islamic punishment.
Here the comparison with Rushdie ends, for the judge is an intellectual, recognises Khayyam's genius and gives him a small blank book filled with the finest leaves of Chinese paper. 'Whenever a verse takes shape in your mind, or is on the tip of your tongue, just hold it back. Write it down on these sheets which will stay hidden,' the judge whispers to him in the courtroom. The head of a great poet is saved and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is born.
Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese writer whose second novel, Samarkand, has already won a leading literary prize in France, has conjured up Central Asia in the 11th century, when the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were the greatest in the world. Maalouf's descriptions of the courts, the bazaar, the lives of mystics, kings and lovers are woven into an evocative and languid prose. Without appearing to labour at it, the novel sets a tone that is in perfect harmony with Sufi mysticism, successfully mirroring the paradoxes, subtle irony and self-deprecating humour of Sufi writing.
Khayyam's nine-year love affair with Jahan, the female poet at the court, resounds with a palpable sensuality. The great figures of medieval Central Asia - Nizam ul Mulk, the Muslim Machiavelli who is still remembered for his brilliant innovations in government, Hassan Sabbah, the founder of the Order of the Assassins, and others - are seen through the eyes of Khayyam.
However, the novel travels much further afield than Central Asia as the author crosses centuries and continents, tracking down the fate of the original manuscript of the Rubaiyat. Khayyam's jottings in the book, which in the 19th century are to be translated by Edward Fitzgerald and stun Victorian society, are first stolen by his friend, the ruthless Assassin leader Hassan Sabbah.
The fortress of the Assassins, where the manuscript is kept, is destroyed, and the manuscript is lost for hundreds of years. In the 19th century an American scholar becomes obsessed with finding the original. Travelling to Persia in 1896, he joins in the first struggles by Persian democrats for a constitutional government after the Shah is assassinated.
The scholar falls in love with Shireen, a Persian princess who has discovered the missing text. They live through the early months of the first Iranian Republic, but when they travel back to America together on the Titanic in 1912, the ship sinks. Although they are both saved and arrive safely in New York, the manuscript is lost at the bottom of the ocean.
The lives and all-consuming love of the 19th-century couple in Persia are stitched into the lives of Khayyam and Jahan. The great philosophical debates of ancient Central Asia are duplicated in the first stirrings of nationalism and modernism in 19th-century Persia. The writing contains warnings for today. 'If this revolution triumphs,' says Shireen in 1900, 'the mullahs will have to turn themselves into democrats; if it fails, the democrats will have to turn themselves into mullahs.' Just as Jahan is killed when Samarkand is attacked by Turkish nomads, so Shireen, who cannot face life without the manuscript, deserts her American lover on the dockside in New York.
Maalouf has written an extraordinary book, describing the lives and times of people who have never appeared in fiction before and are unlikely to do so again. The book is far more than a simple historical novel; like the intricate embroidery of an oriental carpet it weaves back and forth through the centuries, linking the poetry, philosophy and passion of the Sufi past with modernism. The lines in the Rubaiyat that lament the death of Jahan ring out, 900 years later, to mourn the American's loss of his beloved Shireen.
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