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Samarkand (Interlink World Fiction) Paperback – September 1, 2003
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From Library Journal
Edward Fitzgerald's Victorian-era translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyaat profoundly influenced the West's perception (or misperception) of Persia. Lebanese author Maalouf tries to set the record straight in this fictional history of Omar's personal manuscript copy of the famous quatrains. The first half of the book introduces three world-historical Persians: Omar himself, a brilliant poet, mathematician, and astronomer; the vizier Nizam al-Mulk, a philosophical despot whose political theories anticipate Machiavelli; and the fanatical cult leader Hassan, who commands an invincible army of assassins from the mountain fortress of Alamut. In the second half, a wealthy collector miraculously recovers the lost manuscript and books passage home on the Titanic in celebration. Despite its exotic locales, this is a curiously dry historical novel from the author of the science fiction parable The First Year After Beatrice (Braziller, 1995). For larger fiction collections.?Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A rich historical romance... that exudes a distinct Arabian Nights flavor... Mysteries and their solutions are deployed with masterly authority in this accomplished novel by one of the best European voices to have emerged in the last decade."
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Well worth reading for everyone with an interest in history in a beautiful and gripping narrative.
Samarkand breaks nearly every rule that I have for myself about what kind of historical fiction I dislike. It name-drops famous people (characters sail on the Titanic. Khayyam is close to Hassan-i-Sabah and their stories intertwine, etc.). It makes historical characters modern. It indulges in fancy dress and exotic places. But still, that didn't really bother me. Perhaps that is because in the character of the student it seems Maalouf turns the camera back on himself. By giving a young, well-intentioned but ultimately callow character the role to interpret not only the past but the culture of the present, the reader is reminded that such things can not be so easily understood. Maalouf seems to remind us that their is no such thing as an omniscient narrative. And then somehow, just like that, I forgive him the rest of the devices in his book.
Samarkand is not perfect. The latter half, in particular is a little bit clunky. There is something not quite right about the structure. It may be the translation, but I am not completely sure. Still, a worthwhile read. A good use of time. (And now I have to run out and re-read the Rubaiyaat, which I will confess I did not take as seriously as I ought.)
This is the second book that I have read by Maalouf, the first being the magnificent Crusade Through Arab Eyes. I'm definitely going to keep reading in his body of work.