Mahmoud Saeed was a mahjooz, a detainee under Saddam Hussein (referred to here merely as “The Narcissist”), and the details he presents in this novel are horribly, and sometimes even bracingly, convincing.
Mustafa Ali Numan, a teacher, was, as they say, just going about his business. But two men are waiting for him at his school and, before he knows it, 15 months have passed before he sees it again. At first he assumes it’s all a mistake: they keep confusing him with someone called Othman. But even when the confusion is cleared up, release is constantly deferred. On the wall of a warder’s office a message from Saddam Hussein urges his forces to treat the people with restraint and respect; we then learn that he still personally conducted torture sessions. There are strange consolations: the humor of his fellow inmates, food when he was not expecting it. There is the hideous compassion in blindfolding prisoners “so they won’t see things like that”. As the narrator says towards the end, the Baath fear two things: reports and the future.
I don’t know the particular problems posed for the translator by Arabic, but the leaps from archaism to colloquialism don’t work. Otherwise, this is a simply beautiful, though inevitably harrowing, and tale. How far it will influence the doubters is another question.
Apology for a Murder by Lorenz no de Medici (HESPERUS £6.99)
Lorenz no de Medici had, at first glance, many reasons to be grateful to his cousin, Alessandro, Duke of Florence, his patron and playmate. But he killed him. And in a particularly vile manner: Alessandro was stabbed in his cousin’s bedroom, having been promised his cousin’s aunt. The first half of this book contains Lorenz no’s apologia for his action; the second an account of his own murder by his assassin.
Lorenz no presents the dead duke as a monster, as vile, in his own way, as Nero or Caligula. The assassination was intended to free Florence of a tyrant. It was not, he claims in a rather sniff aside, his fault if the people of Florence were too spiritless to throw off the yoke and return to being a republic. It is a beautifully written – and translated – piece of writing, but interesting chiefly insofar as it was written at all. The arguments are fairly familiar from humanist tracts of the time, and at no point does Lorenz no express remorse for the peculiarly ungallant method of execution.
In his foreword, Tim Parks makes a fine attempt to make us sympathies with his curious antihero, but it seems clear that Lorenz no’s real motivation was envy. He envied obsessively the more affluent members of his family, convinced that almost no one else was a true Medici. This odd, tormented court dwarf found for himself that patriotism is the last refuge of the regicide.