Youssef Ziedan (translated by Jonathan Wright)
Atlantic Books, £15.00
Kindle: Not Available
Review: Billy O’Callaghan
AZAZEEL is an astonishing feat of imaginative fiction. Ostensibly a historical novel, it re-imagines a pocket of time that has, in literary terms, been distilled to mere facts and all but exorcised from the memory.
Set in 5th century Egypt during a brief, turbulent period when Christianity held sway, wedged between the nation’s illustrious Pagan past and its Muslim future, we are presented with the first-person recollections of a monk-physician, the scholarly, devout and utterly human, Hypa.
Mr Ziedan begins with the discovery of an ancient manuscript, an unwavering confessional narrative, spanning some 20 years and the first of its kind to emerge from antiquity, that offers an alternate account of a history written by the victors.
With this somewhat weary but necessary literary device, the author breathes fire into the marrow of his story’s bones. Hypa is a young man, the product of a tragic past, who has a passion for God, poetry and healing. His words are humble and always strive for truth, questioning the world and its beyond, and perhaps most poignantly of all the weak and hungry nature of mankind.
The backdrop is of a Church in turmoil, splitting open at the seams under the guise of theological anathema, but driven in reality by politics and the craving for power. But at the story’s forefront is Hypa himself and the journey he undertakes across Egypt, Syria and Israel, driven by a need for understanding and desperate to find a place for himself in a world that seems to shun his very existence; driven too by his own inner demon, namely Azazeel, one of Satan’s many guises. And driven in the end, and in most profound fashion, by love.
As a treatise on religion, and as an allegory for the modern world, there is much here to absorb and appreciate. In the 5th Century, the Church was still in its formative stages, and the ancient gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome still lingered just beneath the surface.
The brutality depicted is at times shocking, particularly the historically accurate skinning alive of a woman, Hypatia, a philosopher and mathematician, dragged through the cobbled streets of Alexandria by a lynch-mob of depraved monks.
Egypt’s Coptic populace, who hold this corner of the past as a golden age, have been vociferous in their condemnation of Mr Ziedan, particularly his casting of one of its most lauded figures, Cyril of Alexandria, as something akin to a monster.
Yet the novel does not stray far from its factual basis, and while controversy rages on undimmed, critical acclaim has been widespread, even earning its author the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Arabic equivalent of the Booker Prize.
‘Azazeel’ might be the most compelling and inventive novel published this year. A triumph.
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