AUTHOR: León Rodríguez Zahar
PUBLISHER: Vaso Roto
READER’S NAME: Annette Bridges
Memorias del último califa de Bagdad is a work of fiction based on the history of the region that is now Iraq and surrounding countries. León Rodríguez Zahar, a Mexican historian, art historian and diplomat specializing in the Middle East, sets the book in modern-day Iraq, specifically in Saddam Hussein’s palace, in 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion.
The protagonists are a U.S. military contractor, who discovers an ornate, ancient, fragile and clearly very valuable manuscript, and a mysterious, genie-like Iraqi interpreter, who proceeds to read that manuscript aloud (over a period of 26 nights; hence the subtitle). The manuscript dates from the sixteenth century and narrates the history of the Abbasid Caliphate. The modern-day plotline frames the episodes of the stories that the interpreter reads.
The most striking linguistic feature of this book, and one that would make it difficult to translate, is the use of two distinct styles of the Spanish language. The events set in 2003 are related in modern colloquial Spanish, while the historical narratives are written using many Arabic words, and not only those that have become part of the Spanish language. For example, over just half a page, the reader encounters the words aljerifes, alcázar, almojarife, algafires, algorfa, alhaites, sabarchadas, alaquecas and almases. There is a glossary that contains some of these words, but it was hard going for me, a non-native Spanish speaker who does not speak Arabic; it would be interesting to see how a translator might resolve this issue.
The contrast between the story of Joe, a military contractor and sergeant Joe from Pennsylvania, and the fantastic events and locales described over the course of the 26 nights (including a mythical “blue palace,” magical pomegranate seeds that turn into jewels, a cataclysmic dust storm, a serpent-woman, a genie that goes in and out of a cauldron, and much more) makes for delightful reading. This book would be of interest to readers to both novices and experts in the field of Middle Eastern history and legend. Both levels of the story contain quite a good balance of dialogue and description, although ultimately none of the characters are as well-developed as they would be in a more conventional work of fiction.
León Rodríguez Zahar’s book does contain an element of great fun in the way it incorporates a range of literary references – the interpreter is compared to both Scheherazade and Sancho Panza, and Joe is described as having been set down in the palace in Baghdad like Dorothy in Oz. However, the horror of war provides the ever-present backdrop.
By drawing a parallel between the Mongolian invasion that destroyed the caliphate in 1258 and the U.S. invasion that destroyed Baghdad in 2003, the author reminds us that destruction can be incredibly swift, while building a civilization, in particular the magic of culture, architecture and art, is necessarily a long and arduous process.