Just read, Samarkand, Amin Maalouf

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A little puzzled by this book. I’ve had it for a while and started reading it a year or so ago, rather enjoying it at first and then not so much so I left it. I picked it up again the other week and started from the beginning again. Exactly the same thing happened, I  was enjoying it then not so much only this time, I decided to continue reading. It took me a while even though it is a fairly slim book with only just over 300 pages. Finally finished it yesterday and am still puzzling over what it is exactly that I didn’t enjoy. Amin Maalouf published Samarkand in French 25 years ago, it is historical fiction, which I like and it weaves a narrative around real historical characters, which I also like. The first half takes place in Persia in the 11th and 12th centuries and this I found mostly a fascinating read. I wanted to read about Omar Khayam, the main protagonist and his relationships with Nizam al Malk, the powerful grand vizier and Hassan Sabbah the founder of the assassins and I wanted to continue reading about these characters, their ideas, actions and legends that have sprung up about them since. I wanted to read about Persia pre Mongol invasions, I know next to nothing of this period other than there was an efflorescence of arts and sciences including poetry, astronomy, mathematics. This is what interested me. Then the narrative moved to the late 19th century and involved an American searching for Khayam’s manuscript of poems across Persia while the Western powers fought to spread their influence and ‘spheres of interest’. This part would have possibly worked better as a book in its own right, it is a fascinating story, well told but this part of the story was much less character driven, the story of the search for the manuscript seemed a little trivial when compared to the awakening of the Persian people and their attempts to establish a state independent of Western influence. The latter period drew parallels with the earlier in the conflict of beliefs and ideas between the old and the new but the American narrator was a much weaker character than those who came before and this, I feel, let the book down somewhat. Having said that, Samarkand is beautifully written and the historical characters truly fascinating. I’ve read elsewhere that Borges wrote a story about their friendship too, a reminder for me to look up the big collection of his stories I’ve been dipping in and out of for a while and see if I can find the story.

I came across Samarkand and Amin Maalouf through The Guardian‘s 1,000 novels list and will look up Maalouf’s other works once I’ve cleared a few more titles from the ‘pile of shame’, which is currently somewhat inflated following recent additions. Continuing to work hard at getting it to a healthier size.

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