Fadhil al-Azzawi’s 1992 The Last of the Angels while not a particularly long book (275 pages in the Free Press paperback edition) is a kaleidescope of characters, stories, images and historical references. It isn’t dense so much as ivied, or brambled, with tales looping off in directions unknown until they come to a stop. The next and nearest place to plant your eye might be unrelated, and relation won’t reappear for several pages, or in the next chapter. Those who love tall-tales will likely be swept away by the invention and the unexpected twists and turns. Those who like their stories straight-up with a water chaser will have a harder time. Mini biographies of al-Azzawi characterize him as one of the leading experimental writers in the Arab world.  I don’t know if The Last of the Angels is thought to be experimental, though in its exuberant growth it seems so to me.  It could just as well come from ancient story telling traditions which, like an American shaggy-dog story,  go on and on for the sheer pleasure of telling the story.  Point?  Does there have to be a point?

It could also be that the comic impulse that drives the novel may be lost to us, unfamiliar with the basic tropes of the culture and literature that comes from it.  Comedy depends on seeing that something is out of place while those in the scene don’t see it.  As newcomers to Arab-Iraqi culture and literary scene it’s harder to see what is meant to be out of place, and what is meant to be, let’s say, magical-realism, than in our own cultures, or near relations.  Is belief in jinns a normal part of life in a city like Kirkuk?  Does someone become a noted man because of an extraordinary trip?  Do people tell stories like this as a matter of course, or is al-Azzawi breaking rules and inventing something new?

The novel starts off in fine fashion, a story unwinding in nice comic style as we hear how Hameed Nylon got his strange name, how he lusted after his boss’s wife — who seemed to lust after many others, but not Hameed.  We read how he got sacked and how the neighborhood comes together to demonstrate against his firing,

The matter evolved into a quasi-religious duty once Mullah Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri declared that since all Muslims constitute a single body, when one member suffers, the rest of the body rallies on its behalf with a vigilant defense

…One day, after Friday prayers, a procession that included women and children set forth … carrying signs in a variety of scripts, “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” “Traitor, Your Time’s Up,” “Hameed Nylon Innocent.”   … The neighborhood’s dervishes brought their swords and lances, which they brandished, striking in time to the ululations of the women or anyone who cried, “God is Most Great!” … Many children had stained their faces black with soot so they resembled Africans or afreets.  Others, who wore goat heads attached to skins that reached down to their feet, butted the air with their horns…

Before the several pages of the demonstration are finished we have a rainstorm, a long aside about the opinions Turkmen have of Arabs, and vice versa, and whose prayers, exactly could be credited for the rain.

Since the Turkmen disparaged the Arabs in any quarrel that erupted between them with references to “traitorous Arabs,” or “those shit-assed Arabs,” many Arab children began to wish that God had created them Turkmen.

It’s possible that neither group’s prayers were answered but a madman, who wasn’t a human but a jinni — from leads to the story of a man who proves that his cat is actually a jinn by following him on a nightly foray while wearing his owner’s coat. 

And so it goes, story leading to story — as a kind of 1001 Nights, without the intervening nights to act as punctuation, so to speak.  In fact, this chapter seems a fine little story on its own, and is apparently published as such from time to time.  You can get a flavor of it here, at the fine Words Without Borders site.

The second main character, a young boy and, according to al-Azzawi, the character he felt closest to, is Burhan Abdallah, who searching through an old chest comes upon three old wise men:

No sooner had he opened the box, though, than the earth shook mightily and a brilliant light flashed through the upper room, leaving him curled up in a ball. Then everything vanished and he found himself cast into the void… When the boy opened his eyes once more, he found himself seated in a grassy valley…and he observed three old men wearing white, as if they were angels that had just descended from heaven.

The angels will reappear several times in the course of the novel, and in fact, it turns, out may be devils in disguise.

The third major character is Burhan’s uncle, one Khidir Musa who transforms himself from a failed butcher into the nighborhood’s Big Man by going to find his two brothers who had been missing since WW II, in Russia.  He returns with them in a blimp, filled with a gas which can find Iraq’s secret missile sites. [You can see, the tales are non-stop!]

One of the on-going themes of the book is the organizing efforts of Hameed Nylon, starting with the first protest against his being fired, continuing with agitation against the British Oil company which wants to build a road through the cemetery –with the  approval of the town officials– and leading to a revolution he believes he has sparked, writing his own manual [the size of a matchbook] because Mao’s Little Red book won’t appeal to the 20 or so villagers he has mobilized with promises of steady pay, which will come from a huge fortune which has accumulated from religious tourists to a new shrine for an old barber who was shot by accident as he sat in front of his shop and was said to have been carried up to heaven in a shaft of light.  Khidir Musa, who has just come back with a delegation to see the King about the cemetary desecration, calms the crowd:

He announced that the favor bestowed on Qara Qul Mansur by God’s angels, who bore him to the sky up the shaft of light, was a rare one that would permit him to join the ranks of immortal saints. Actually, people who had known Qara Qul Mansur personally harbored many reservations in their hearts about the matter because the man had been a deceitful and malicious alcoholic. Since God had chosen him in the manner that people had witnessed, however, His choice must have been based on some wisdom that escaped people. Those who had quarreled with him during his lifetime regretted that they had not recognized his true worth, which had been displayed by his death.

this followed by a description of people ripping up the grave.

“The blind washed out their eyes with its soil till they could see the light. Cripples crawled across it so strength would return to their legs and hands. Barren women….stuffed handfuls of dirt up their vaginas so they would bear children.

 

The telling veers from humor to farce with scarcely a pause anywhere along the way.  Death himself, in the person of  Dervish Bahlul [Clown] comes on the delegation to the King, and again late in the book when the King is assassinated by the Free Officers Movement [the actual name of the coup that eventually brought Saddam Hussein to power]:

The king extended his blood-stained hand to take Dervish Bahlul’s saying, “Be compassionate to me, Mr. Death,” and squeezed his hand.

Dervish Bahlul waited briefly until the alarm on his watch rang.  Then he took a ledger from his pocket and crossed off the king’s name.

…Dervish Bahlul passed three days without savoring sleep for a single moment because the city had been seized  by madness in hearing the statements that a liutenant colonel, of whom no one had ever heard before , delivered by radio like bolts from the sky.

In a nice bit, Burhan Abdallah comes upon a castle like structure in the desert with a bronze plaque inscribed Central Bureau for Existential Administration. When asked by one of the angels what he wants he replies:

“I have come to search for god so he can tell me the meaning of everything. Why does man exist if he’s condemned to death?”

An angel says not to worry because

you’re nothing more than a character in an invented novel written by a disgruntled author…. Perhaps we’ll suggest to your author that he tell you the meaning of your story, although it may not even have one.”

The final chapter takes all the themes, motifs and images we have seen throughout the book and begins to whirl them together in what can only be called an immense dream  sequence.  Burhan Abdullah comes back “after 46 years in exile.” Khidir Musa, who had been entombed in a tower decades earlier, appears, as though no time had gone by. “Lions, cheetahs, elephants, foxes, hyenas, jackals, monkeys, stags, gazelles, skink,s anteaters, hawks, penguins, tapirs, and rhinoceroses left their hiding places and returned to the cities from where they’d been chased.” Spring bursts from the sacks the old men are carrying.  Gog and Magog appear.  And Burhan?

He raised his hands up high, like a man preparing to die.  Just when he had lost all hope of salvation, he noticed  that his hands were changing into prodigious wings.  He beat the air with them.  He lifted himself higher…higher…higher….

Comedy, farce, transcendence….  An exile’s look at the country of his birth.  For me, there are several possible stories within, any one of which would have attracted me.  Folded together, I had a harder time.  I’ll have to pick it up again and try a few chapters I preferred, by themselves.  Chapters Ten and Eleven, for instance, are a less elaborate telling of what seems to be the arrival of the Baathists on the scene, with the assassination of the king.  For someone who likes to tie fiction into the world I live in, this holds promise.

William M Hutchins has done an admirable job of a very difficult task.  I know, as a translator, how much I depend on textual context to settle doubts for myself about words which I don’t have a native’s certainty about.  In a book of sudden leaps and changes of direction that help disappears.  Yet the English result, however labyrinthine the story, hangs together without a bad seam showing.  I’m very impressed.

 

For another review see M. Lynx Qualey at The Quarterly Conversation [undated]  Al-Azzawi was at a PEN event in NYC in 2005, though I can’t find any transcripts, or audio of the events.