Thomas Keneally – The Tyrant’s Novel

Posted on | January 30, 2012 | 2 Comments

Schindler’s Ark was one of those books that left me speechless; the story, the writing, the emotions it evoked. Everything, basically. A couple of months back, I picked up The Tyrant’s Novel from a second-hand bookstore, just to see how it would compare to the 1982 Man Booker Prize winner.

In a nutshell, this book is not a patch on Schindler’s Ark. The location of the book remains ambiguous, although it’s easy to reach the conclusion that the book is set in Iraq, and the dictator, referred to as Great Uncle is none other than Saddam Hussein. The reason for the ambiguity of the location and its dictator confused me. Perhaps it was down to the fact that it was a fictional novel. Or then, for the same reason as The West Wing, where Qumar is a fictional Middle-Eastern country, which represents the worst of all extremist Islamic states.

The narrator of this book, Alan Sheriff, has been commissioned by the Great Uncle to write a novel addressing the injustice of the sanctions imposed on the country by the international world. The book will be published under the name of the Great Uncle, and the objective of the book is to initiate some debates in the literary circles in the States, in order to get the G7 nations to re-think their stance. The deadline imposed to Sheriff is nothing short of unrealistic (one month), and as this narrative within a narrative progresses, one just gets the feeling that the novel leaves a fair bit to be desired.

At the very outset, Sheriff, who is narrating his story, says that this is the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear. The tinge of self-deprecation coupled with the curiosity it arouses is a great way to start the story. It immediately draws the reader in. In a way, it’s a tall order – recanting a story that’s both, the “silliest” and the “saddest”. But then, despite being set in the Middle-East, all the characters have Western names, which is, in a way, inexplicable. The author, through his protagonist, does attempt to justify this, but it’s an unconvincing argument.

“I would very much like to be the man you meet in the street. A man with a name like Alan. If we all had good Anglo-Saxon names…or if we were not, God help us, Said and Osmaa and Saleh. If we had Mac instead of Ibn.”

Is there really that much to a name? Would it make a difference if Saddam had a different name? Or Osama? Would their crimes be considered any less trivial? Would their fates end differently? All rhetorical questions.

I digress… Back to the story:

The deadline imposed on Sheriff has been done so at a time when he’s suffering from a serious writer’s block. His wife is recently deceased, and all the materials for his second book have been laid to rest with his wife. He doesn’t really have much to go on for this novel that he’s been commissioned to write. And, if not written by deadline day… well, we all know how that story ends.

The emphasis seems to be on how completely powerless and helpless Sheriff is, as the powers that be seem against him. To quote Mark Twain, at this point:

There are many scapegoats for our sins, but the most popular is Providence.

And he’s just one man trying to make sense of his reality. As are probably very many other men living in that dictatorship, as they desperately try to figure out their lives, and strike a balance between their personal demons (griefs) and the political terror that haunts them every waking minute. It’s not a life I would care for, needless to say.

Sheriff’s story is fascinating; specially as he talks about how he ended up at the asylum, which is where he’s sitting as he tells his story. But, even as he ends his story, it doesn’t change the world. All said and done, it doesn’t really matter. In the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly insignificant. But despite that, it’s a story that needs an audience, and it’s a story that’s worth listening to. In a world where we take freedom for granted, and our fundamental rights are something we can’t live without, this story serves as a reminder that even now – even in the twenty-first century – history is being made, and we haven’t really moved on from dictatorships of the past.

I do want to read more works by Thomas Keneally, but I’m not quite sure where to go next. Any recommendations?


2 Responses to “Thomas Keneally – The Tyrant’s Novel”

  1. Becky (Page Turners)
    January 30th, 2012 @ 4:03 am

    No recommendations from me sorry. Sadly, I am still waiting to read something by Keneally. Well, waiting implies I have no agency in the matter which obviously I do ;-)

  2. Alex (The Sleepless Reader)
    January 30th, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    Never read Schindler’s Ark, but have the feeling that it’s one of those books that’s unfortunately eclipsed by the movie.

    The premise of The Tyrant’s Novels sounds interesting – I’m especially curious about how it all ends.

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