The Last of the Angels. By Fadhil al-Azzawi (trans. William Hutchins). Free Press. 275pp, $14.00.
The title of Fadhil al-Azzawi’s first novel to appear in English, The Last of the Angels, might seem to promise a good, long sigh over a bygone Iraqi era. For a poet and novelist who has lived in Germany since 1977, nostalgia would be an understandable result of his life away.
However, the fruit of al-Azzawi’s decades-long exile is much more complex than mere wistful reconstruction. Most of The Last of the Angels is darkly comic, and much of it is very—if distressingly—funny. But as with other great comic novels, humor is not the book’s only mode. At the close of this novel, which was written in the late 1980s, the weight of the characters’ hopes and hostilities breaks through the comic into another realm. The last chapter unfolds in a completely different style. It takes on the cracked vision of the exile, blurring time and place, apocalypse and eternal spring. We come to the last angel—or perhaps the first—in a place where “[t]he ending merged with the beginning in a way that made separating them difficult, just as day fades into night.”
Furthermore, the titular angels are not (necessarily) to be trusted. They aren’t the haloed sorts who appear on greeting cards, or on the tops of bushy Western Christmas trees. Sometimes they rain down fire and destruction. Other times, their actions seem to have unintended consequences. On one occasion, three angels are unmasked as gleeful devils. Indeed, al-Azzawi’s angels seem to blur into devils, and perhaps back into angels again.
The first two-thirds of The Last of the Angels are written in an appealing style of black humor. The book is set in Kirkuk, at a time when British oil concerns are becoming a force on the Iraqi landscape. Hameed Nylon, one of the book’s larger-than-life characters, is fired from a British oil company as the book opens, probably for presenting his boss’s wife with the nylons which earn him his nickname.
The novel proceeds to paint a picture of the Chuqor neighborhood in Kirkuk in the early 1950s. The characters are drawn on a grand comic scale, but they are also complex and ever-changing: Hameed Nylon is a womanizer, but later becomes a revolutionary, and later still a broken, disillusioned shell. Khidir Musa is a greedy livestock dealer, but later a strong-minded community leader. Later yet, he withdraws into his religion. Burhan Abdallah—the third main character in a book that seems to delight in threes—is an author, an uncertain exile, and perhaps an angel.
Thomas Mann suggested in a lecture about Magic Mountain that literary novels often borrow structural qualities from other art forms. The Last of the Angels takes on many of the elements of a symphony, with themes that begin quietly and are repeated in louder and more complex shapes.
So for instance, when the book opens, both the Chuqor community’s hopes and its hostilities are relatively small. Hameed Nylon is fired from a British petroleum company for reasons that are not wholly clear. Community members want his job reinstated, but settle for praying for rain, and get it. But like a rousing Romantic symphony, as the book progresses the drama grow larger—a union, preserving their cemetery from a British road, a revolution—and so does the violence the community suffers.
Most of the book is enjoyably comic. Early on, the comedy is light. Mullah Zayn al-Abidin al-Qadiri curses the English in a Friday sermon in order to increase his anti-establishment credibility. Slogans appear on the community’s walls, and the police come to question the mullah and to paint over the graffiti. However, the police cannot read, and proceed to paint over the children’s scrawls as well. The children:
who were delighted by the serious interest the police displayed in their handiwork, began to show the police all the slogans written on the walls. Once they realized that the policemen’s goal was to obliterate only the Communist slogans, they filled the neighborhood’s walls—out of the sight of the police—with the slogans: “Long Live the Communist Party” and “The Oil Workers’ Union Lives.”
The police run out of paint and promise to return the following day. They fail to appear, even though the children have thought up far more damaging slogans, and have covered the community’s walls with their work.
At this point in the book, consequences are light. The mullah is questioned and released after being made to promise that he won’t curse anyone in the future, with the possible exception of Communists. A lieutenant advises him: “If you feel you need to say something, curse Communism; that’s the only party a person is allowed to curse in this country.”
Nearer to the book’s middle, the barber-cum-saint Qara Qul appears. The alcoholic barber is shot accidentally when city residents chase a secret policeman during the struggle over their cemetery. At midnight, the deceased Qara Qul is seen ascending to heaven. The next day, his grave site is mobbed, inciting jealously in the people of a nearby village. Several villagers make off with the corpse of the now-sainted Qara Qul, which they want for their own cemetery.
As the abductors fled by a route that led through fields and orchards, the knot in the rope with which they had secured the quilt came undone, and the corpse, which was totally naked since people had plundered its shroud when it was taken from the grave, rolled down into an irrigation ditch. One of the villagers reached out, grabbed the corpse’s foot, and dragged it behind him during their retreat under police fire.
As the book’s violence accelerates, the comedy takes on a higher pitch and the line between what’s funny and what’s horrifying blurs. People are strung up from electrical wires, their body parts are amputated, and dark comedy moves into pure darkness.
The last chapter has none of the book’s earlier comic rhythm, and requires a different mode of reading. If the first eleven chapters can be processed and enjoyed with relative ease, the twelfth has jarring sounds and patterns, and forces the reader to slow down. Here, time and place collapse: There are only a few steps between Berlin and Kirkuk; the setting is both utopia and dystopia; it is past and present and future. These juxtapositions are at times powerful, at times forced and awkward. At the novel’s close, Burhan Abdallah transcends the chaos, and we are left to wonder whether this moment is an ending or yet another beginning.
William Hutchins is a strong and experienced translator, but some of the prose does retain the aftertaste of its Arabic-to-English transformation. Still, most of it reads beautifully, rendering al-Azzawi’s careful descriptions—the portrait, for example, of the Kirkuk mayor’s comb-over—in a transparent manner.
Some readers might pick up The Last of the Angels because of Iraq’s command of international headlines. But the real reason to read this novel—which ascends or collapses into ugliness and beauty, or something that could be both—is because it, and its author, should be of international literary standing.
M. Lynx Qualey has work published or forthcoming in New Orleans Review, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Fiddlehead, Fourteen Hills, and others.
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