For most of us, what knowledge we have of Iraq begins with the US led invasion of 2003. Our mental images of the country are of Abu Ghraib, sectarian violence and news pictures of those injured in bombings. The Last of the Angels allows us to experience a different Iraq.
The novel is set in the Chuqor neighbourhood of the city of Kirkuk in the 1950s. This is a multicultural community: we meet Arabs, Turkmen, Bedouins, Kurds, Gypsies and an African. Most of the characters are Muslims – though many drink a fair amount – while Jews and Christians are also present, mostly off-stage.
The Chuqor community also contains its fair share of ghosts, animated skeletons and small, furry angels. Then there are the English, who run the local oil industry, and whose behaviour is generally bad and strange. Characters hold various political viewpoints – the local Communists are easy for the secret police to spot, since the men have all grown thick moustaches in emulation of Stalin. A prayer meeting is visited by a ghost who provides an Islamist critique of Egypt’s President Nasser.
Much of the book is driven by social comedy, in particular about the absurdities of small town elites. Fun is poked at mullahs, for example, rather like Father Ted had a go at priests. Yet the book has a slightly dizzying way of defying genre. The comedy shades into accounts of social struggles, which then give way to otherworldly episodes.
At one point, for example, the community learns that the English controlled oil company plans to build a road through the cemetery. They riot in outrage – the police shoot a barber, who is buried at a huge public funeral. The next night a miracle occurs. The barber’s grave opens in a flash of blinding light and he is taken up to paradise on Buraq, the prophet’s own horse, while magical birds appear and drop fiery rocks on the fleeing police.
The book’s tone changes in the final chapters. These depict the coup of 1958 which established the Republic of Iraq, followed by the story of the youngest main character’s exile from the city and return.
This brings us back to today. More than anything else, The Last of the Angels shows us the centuries old roots of Iraqi culture. Its kaleidoscope of elements echoes the richness and complexity of that society. It is a fine novel in itself, but many Socialist Review readers will also find in it inspiration to continue fighting for an end to the war.
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