Book Review: Samarkand

Ten Word Summary: A fantastic journey through Persia that combines fact and fiction.

Amin Maalouf’s depiction of history is nothing short of extraordinary. Ditching the typical Arab approach to long past tragedies and historical accounts, relying on whatever accurate information funded by the sponsor of the book or the publisher, Maalouf instead touches upon history and uses it as a backdrop to his fascinating tale.

It’s a clever formula that mostly works.

The book tells the story of the Rubaiyaat, which I have heard of as a kid in legends as well as, of all things, a videogame that takes place on the Titanic, with the purpose of finding the manuscript before the ship sinks. Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin anything in the story for you – that’s all writte on the first page.

Going back in time, the depictions of ancient Persia, with its courts, fountains, astronomers, wealth of knowledge, love and soul searching clash in clever dialogue with politics, arrogance, religious fanatics as well as barbaric acts of betrayals and whatever makes history, history. I often felt like I was there, standing with Omar Khayyam, in the court, listening to the political ramblings, trying to make sense out of them. And, like him, I am eager to flip the pages for him to exit this madness and retreat to his abode with his beloved, drink wine and sink in the fragrance of love.

While the book does a successful job in bringing the characters to life, with their means and – often tragic – ends, it has a bad habit of jolting you back to reality with a small account of hard-fact history. Though the history (which is, according to abufares, accurate) is always incorporated in the other “fictional” chapters, it’s never as apparent as when you hit one that’s narrated as though it were a documentary. Being stripped away all of a sudden from the wonderful realm that took several chapters to create almost depressed me. Perhaps it is a deliberate trick by Maalouf to draw further contrast to Khayyam’s interpretation/desires of life and what was actually taking place.

Another odd twist to the book is that, more than halfway through, centuries pass and you’re presented with a new cast of characters, new relationships and new stories that eventually fall under the Rubaiyaat umbrella. It’s disorienting, and, unfortunately, less appealing than those in Khayyam’s time. Still, with a keen eye, you could see that it’s not that different, merely a modern version of the past,  a way of telling us that everything becomes full circle and history, eventually, does repeat itself.

The manuscript is a great loss to the world, among with all the one of a kind books and papers that have been obliterated during the course of history.

Bottom line: It’s almost a sin not to read the book, so when you do it, take your time and enjoy it!