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The Last of the Angels
Translated by William M Hutchins, New York: Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2008, 320pp
Cell Block Five
Translated by William M Hutchins, Arabia Books, UK, 2008, 112 pp.
A saga of hellish and heavenly powers Fadhil al-Azzawi’s novel The Last of the Angels is a powerful and dark allegory of the author’s native Iraq that ultimately spreads its symbolic wings over the whole Middle East. On its most literal level the novel is a social and political history of the author’s native Kirkuk during Colonial and post-colonial periods, but al-Azzawi’s rejection of literal realism for a more magical and poetic approach means that many other layers of meaning are possible in this densely packed phantasmagoria of a novel.
The time is during and just after WWII, when Iraq – under the colonial oil-interested yoke of England and a puppet king – began to stir for independence. The setting of Kirkuk and its neighborhood of Chuquor where most of the action takes place, quickly becomes for the reader a living being participating in the action alongside the human protagonists, the womanizing militant Hameed Nylon (“He was a guy I knew,” said al-Azzawi, in an interview, “I knew all the characters!”) the feisty, embattled mullah Al-Qadiri, the wonder working butcher Khidir Musa and the novel’s real hero the boy Burhan Abdallah (the author’s admitted double) who is befriended by the three angels of the title, goes into exile, and comes back to witness the apocalypse of his country. As one often finds in magical realism, the principals are slightly caricatured – because in the end the novel does not obey character, history or any other confining realism but the poetic vision of the author.
One of the prime pleasures of the novel is the way it deconstructs the common reductionist notion of Westerners (such as myself) toward the Middle East and Arab culture – that religion and culture are all of a piece.Al-Azzawi’s Kirkuk is an amalgam of “five cultures” – Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Christians and Jews, and as such is a rich multicultural stew in which a populistic Islam predominates but not to the exclusion of other voices and isms.
Another is the sheer fun of a story that, while delivering vivid images of the Iraqi revolt against the British and their puppets that resulted in the republic of 1958, also presents a world as wildly fantastic as the 1001 Nights.
We get a sample of this in the initial chapter which introduces us to womanizer Hameed Nylon, whose loss of a job as chauffeur for the British Petroleum Company triggers a neighbourhood demonstration, led by wily mullah al-Qadiri who, realizing the political consequences of confronting the British or the king, turns the procession into a religious quest for rain. When the crowd’s prayers for rain are thunderously answered, a clear miracle is at hand. The village madman Dalli Ilsan gets mixed up in the affair since he is a medium with hellish and heavenly powers. Sure enough! Off he goes with the neighbour’s cat (a secret jinn) to a meeting of the jinn world in the local bathhouse, which is transformed into an “astonishing chamber of coloured glass”. Things settle down as mundane human concerns and political plots take over, but the reader has been warned: anything can happen in this place. The simple rules of ordinary reality do not apply.
Al-Azzawi acknowledged his magical realism, à la Marquez, in our short interview, but insisted that in the culture of Kirkuk, as in that of Iraq generally, the magic is not an “artificial overlay” but “a natural expression of the culture.” His novel certainly bears this out.
There is the exhilarating episode of the butcher Khidir Musa’s trip to the USSR where he refinds his long lost brothers, victims of displacement during the first world war, and brings them back to Kirkuk in a dirigible – and a certain African saint’s ascension to heaven on a white horse which is perhaps even more expressive of the mixture of fantasy, religion and earthiness that Al Azzawi effortlessly invents. The town’s notables’ protest procession to Baghdad and meeting with the young king over an offensive British road is another highpoint.
On a superior level of reality is the mystical relationship of the visionary boy Burhan with three angels discovered in a dusty old attic that runs throughout the novel and provides its leitmotif and several symbolic cruxes. Except for the vocation of poet, Burhan’s 46 years of exile in Germany and return to Kirkuk as an old man roughly mirrors, as far as I could tell, al-Azzawi’s actual relationship with his country.
This largely positive picture of Kirkuk and its likeable, rumbustious citizens changes dramatically in the last two chapters in which al-Azzawi portrays the coming to power of the Iraqi Republic of 1958. From magical realism the novel veers into Boschlike nightmare.With the ouster of the British and the king, there is a brief moment of “enchantment” with the new freedoms and then a bizarre sado-masochistic carnival of torturers and victims changing places, and then revolution’s coda, reactionary terror: “The city of Kirkuk . . . had become addicted to death . . . in keeping with the desires of the lieutenant colonel (an unnamed dictator who reminds us of someone) whose thoughts changed from time to time. He was influenced by a spring of light that flowed from his spirit like inspiration falling on him from the heavens and that took the form of stern directives provided to the security agencies, which ran death squads of every type and variety. When it seemed that the lieutenant colonel was turning Communist, the squads began to patrol the cities, delivering anyone whose chest was not decorated with the hammer and sickle to butchers who hanged them by their feet with meat hooks beside the carcasses of their lambs...In the final chapter which summarizes almost all human history – not difficult if you consult Death’s Book of Destiny, as Burhan does – al-Azzawi universalizes his story by bringing about first, for the benefit of returnee Burhan, a paradise on earth in Kirkuk and then apocalypse. Burhan, however, decides not to cooperate with the armies of Gog and Magog closing in on him:He raised his hands up high like a man preparing to die. Just when he had lost all hope . . . he noticed that his hands were changing into prodigious wings . . . He beat the air with them . . . lifted himself higher . . . higher . . . higher until he soared into the sky and disappeared. William M. Hutchins’s translation is smooth, idiomatic and (to my ear) flawless.
Exquisite ironies Fadhil al-Azzawi’s novel Cell Block Five is more a metaphysical study of mental anguish than a naturalistic exposé of Iraq’s prison system. Dealing with the author’s experience of arrest and imprisonment when a student at Baghdad University, the story attempts to universalize that episode by telling the story through the eyes of an innocent man arrested but never charged with a crime, though he ends up spending the rest of his life behind bars. There is little of the physical brutality one often finds in the prison genre since this story takes place inside a relaxed low security penitentiary for political prisoners. The pain is mainly psychological – caused by the growing distance between the hero and his supposed normal life outside and the lack of any stable human relationships in the prison.
There is a sad non love-affair between the man and a fellow inmate’s sister who visits and turns out to be a heartless advocate of “free love.” The nameless man never manages to convince the authorities of his innocence – indeed the lack of any record on him in the prison works against him. At one point, the warden asks him to confess to a nominal crime so he can be “processed” and released, but he refuses. The tale ends with the innocent man so inured to his fate that when he hears a new prisoner mouthing his old complaint “I’m innocent!” he advises him to cool it: “That’s not important. What’s important is that you’re here with us.”
Though well worth reading for its exquisite ironies, Cell Block Five never quite convinces either as Kafkesque parable or as a harrowing tale of physical survival. One also wonders if William Hutchins’ translation isn’t a bit too genteel for the subject: not one curse or obscenity in the whole account. These prisoners and warders are remarkably polite.