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Book Review: The Last Of The Angels Fadhil al-Azzawi

Satire is a delicate matter, or at least it should be. Far too often satire seems to be confused with farce for some reason, which is sort of like confusing a chain saw with the delicate touch of a surgeon's scalpel. It's true that both will cut close to the bone, but while farce will leave a great big gapping hole making it obvious what's going on, satire will barely mark the skin on its way to leaving its barb behind. While farce has nothing to do with reality, satire presents such a mirror image of the topic being skewered that at times it's difficult to tell them apart.

Satire can be funny, but is not necessarily so, it's just as easy to weep as to laugh at the foibles of our society. The good satirist can take an idea that's totally outrageous and make it seem reasonable. The satirist's target are the self-important, the holier than thou, blind obedience, and ignorance posing as wisdom. Is it any wonder that satirists tend not to be popular among those who depend on the manipulation of the masses for their position and that the more autocratic a society the more chance they have of ending up in jail.

Such was the case with Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi who spent three years in jail during the 1970's before being released and leaving Iraq for Germany in 1977 where he still lives today. A poet, novelist, and short story writer, Fadhil's fiction is just now being translated into English. If The Last Of The Angels, being published in Canada on July 22nd/08 by Simon & Schuster Canada is indicative of the overall quality of his work we have a lot to look forward to. (For those who are interested I came across a couple of web sites where some of his poetry has been posted, Contemporary Arab Poetry and Jehat.com, which will give you a good idea of the man's quality as a writer.)
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Before the Americans were sucking the oil from Iraq the British were there. After "liberating" the Arab world from the clutches of the Ottoman Empire in WW 1 they were still holding on to their grip on the oil industry in Iraq in the early 1950's. In The Last Of The Angels the English owned Iraq Oil Company is the biggest employee in the city of Kirkuk and the people of the poverty stricken Chuqor community are especially dependant on the company's largeness for survival. So when Hameed Nylon loses his job as chauffeur (and gained the unfortunate second name as well) for the British boss's wife (his job had to been to drive her to her various assignations with lovers and thinking it only fair he be given a piece of the action, offered her a pair of nylons in exchange for a roll in the hay - hence the firing and the new name) the financial consequences were potentially dire.

After a demonstration protesting his unfair dismissal organized by the women of the community, the English woman was obviously a whore after all, results in the relief of a drought, Hameed's status in the community rises. Given his new stature he decides that he should emulate Chairman Mao and organize a peasants rebellion. Based on readings he knows it has to be a spontaneous expression of outrage by the oppressed against their overlords, and that it has to begin in the countryside, away from the corrupting influence of the city. If there was only some incident around which he could he arrange a spontaneous outburst of outrage.

When the Oil company's plan to build a road through the town's cemetery is announced, it sends the whole community into an uproar. It is decided to send a delegation from the town to appeal to the King to protect the sanctity of the dead. Among those included in the delegation are Hameed and his brother in law Khidir Musa. Khidir had gained notoriety for having gone to Russia in search of his two brothers who had been taken prisoner at the end of WW 1 and not been seen since. Everyone had dismissed Khidr's plan as craziness until one day he and his two brothers landed in Kirkuk in a Zeppelin. Even the King himself came to see the famous brothers, he was so captivated by the story.

So Khidir was an obvious choice to be included in the delegation - if anyone had the King's ear it was him. Unfortunately the King was nothing more than a figure head, and while the delegation was in Baghdad the situation in Kirkuk had exploded. The municipal workers had been told to remove their machines from the site in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, but when they started their engines it looked like they were advancing on the cemetery. The ensuing riot created a martyr out of the least unlikely of candidates, but by the end of the day there were enough witnesses willing to testify that not only was he a hero (he was shot while passed out drunk in a chair in front of his barber shop) that he actually ascended into heaven on the back of Buraq - the horse that had carried the prophet when he ascended into the seven heavens - that there could be no contradicting his status.

That's only the tiniest sample of the flavour that you can expect from Fadhil al-Azzawi's The Last Of The Angels as Iraq descends into the anarchy of revolution and coup after coup. Yet it's not only bitter irony, as amidst the stupidity and mass hysteria described in the pages of the book, moments of sublime beauty are salted like beautiful gems gleaming amongst piles of dung. While he ridicules the blind faith of the zealous and the greed of the ambitious, he also depicts the real beauty of belief, the sanctity of compassion, and the sacredness of genuine sorrow.

Like the best of the South American writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, al-Azzawi has created a world that straddles the real and the magical. It's a world where a young boy can open a box found hidden in a dusty room and find himself in conversation with three angels, and death assumes mortal guise to walk amongst the people of Kirkuk. Don't worry though he's not neglecting his duties, as he carries his ledger with him at all times and is keeping his records as meticulously as ever.

Like a painter balancing the colours on a canvass, Fadhil al-Azzawi's touch is so deft that we move between the mundane and the sublime almost without noticing the transition. Humanity, he seems to be saying, is equally capable of ascending the heights as we are of descending into the foulest pits, and the difference in the path leading to one or the other is so slight as to be almost indistinguishable. The Last Of The Angels is a beautiful book that does the seemingly impossible of holding humans up to ridicule while exalting their potential simultaneously.

You can purchase a copy of The Last Of The Angels directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

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