The Last of the Angels: A Modern Iraqi Novel Paperback – Jul 22 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Al-Azzawi left Iraq in 1977 for exile in Germany. This 1992 novel about 1950s Kirkuk was banned in Iraq: it covers a series of hilarious, surreal and sometimes horrifying adventures in a neighborhood of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds during the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the Ba'ath Party. Hameed Nylon—a nickname born of rumors that he lost his job with the Iraq Petroleum Company after offering his English boss's wife a pair of stockings in exchange for sex—becomes an unlikely leader of a people's revolution. Khidir Musa, a butcher suffering midlife crisis, has a vision that starts him on a quest to find his two brothers, missing in the Soviet Union since WWI. A barber killed by an errant bullet during a demonstration becomes a saint whose mausoleum attracts worshippers from afar. Young Burhan Abdallah comes upon three angels who promise to bring rebirth to Kirkuk: he waits for them to keep their word through the rise and fall of one cruel tyrant after another. With comic coincidence as a major plot device, Al-Azzawi explores politics, religion, culture and self-interest with very little inhibition (except where it comes to women, who are mostly absent) in this rollicking, bittersweet satire. (July)
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"The Last of the Angels is a life experience....The novel's language is an unbroken flow that seduces you right up to the final page of this magnificent tale. And in telling the story, its details sparkle with every description, every sentence, and every page." -- Al-Zaman (London)See all Product Description
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Politics informs much of the story, as one character instigates a people's revolution (modeled after Mao's), which embarrasses the local do-nothing communists. The young monarch Faisal II makes an appearance, before he is assassinated, and the Ba'ath party dictatorship begins to assume prominence. The latent bloodthirstiness of the mob, as it emerges at times, is countered with increasingly brutal force by those in power, and we read accounts of torture in prisons, drawn from al-Azzawi's own experience as a political prisoner of Saddam Hussein before the author's eventual exile in the 1970s.
The final chapters flash forward to the 1990s, which are represented in an apocalyptic vision reminiscent of Revelations. Hope struggles in mortal combat with despair, and it is not until the last sentence that we fully appreciate the book's title. The story, as it is told, ranges from playfulness and comedy to scenes of utter horror. That it embraces so much without losing its coherence is a considerable achievement, and a generously rich translation has been provided by William Hutchins. The Free Press edition includes a brief glossary, a study guide for group discussion, and an interview with the author.
Hameed, the main character, works for a British petroleum company as a driver. The time (you guess from later in the book) is the early 1950s. When he propositions the wife of one of the people he drives around, he's fired, and this incident (which leads to his being nicknamed Hameed "Nylon", because he offered her a pair of them as a gift) is the starting point for the novel.
Hameed, you see, is blameless. After all, he was driving this woman around half-naked, and she regularly visited a lover who wasn't her husband. As a result, it was only natural that a man would proposition her, and completely unfair for him to be fired as a result. His firing results in demonstrations and even rioting, though of course everyone ridicules him about the nylons.
So the story starts there, and wanders all over the landscape. Magical things happen at various parts of the book: there are mythical people inside a box in one person's attic, ghosts inhabit various rooms in buildings, and Death himself makes an appearance several times. One of the main characters journeys to Russia to find his long lost brothers, missing since the First World War, and returns with them, in a blimp which he pilots himself, and which is just not mentioned after he lands it at home. As the book progresses, things get more and more unbelievable, more and more incoherent, more and more just silly.
I did enjoy parts of this book, but I must say that overall I didn't enjoy it that much. I would recommend it only to those who are interested in Arab culture and society.
It has opened up a view of life in a part of the world I did not know anything about. Some of the stories were entertaining and some were very sad. This is a good read.