Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan and translated by Jonathan Wright
The problem I generally have with historical fiction is that too often it captures the physical trappings of history but fails to recreate the psychology of the past. It’s genuinely hard to make a 14th or 18th or 6th Century perspective both accurate and yet accessible to a modern reader.
I’ve no interest in fiction where an essentially modern character is transposed into a historic setting as a form of living anachronism. Good historical fiction should make the concerns of the past vivid and important, even if to us now they seem ludicrous or even offensive.
All of which takes me to Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel where he manages the tricky balancing act of showing the relevance of 5th Century Middle-eastern politics to the present while at the same time grounding the characters’ passions and differences firmly in their historical context.
Azazeel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction” which is in fact a framing device within the fiction. Ostensibly the text is the fifth century memoirs of a Coptic monk named Hypa writing in Aramaic – memoirs he buried because they were too controversial to be published in his lifetime. Some 1,500 years later the modern translator (within the fiction) makes the same decision and leaves instructions that his translation only be published after his own death.
What follows is 31 chapters (each supposedly an individual scroll) in which Hypa the monk talks about his life, explores his struggles with his faith, and tells of how he came to be involved in the defining conflict of his era – the battle between Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and Bishop Nestorius regarding the true nature of Christ’s divinity. To most today that question likely sounds obscure and academic. For fifth Century Christians it was a question worth killing over.
Given the density of some of the material Azazeel’s success rests heavily on how the reader takes to Hypa. Fortunately he’s a very likable narrator. He’s devout, but not unquestioningly so. He’s a little naive at times but friendly and good hearted. He’s a skilled physician, is exceptionally well read and has an inquiring mind. In the course of the novel he has two major love affairs, both of which cause him no small guilt given monks aren’t really supposed to do that sort of thing. He’s human.
He writes prompted by Azazeel – the enemy and tempter of mankind. Hypa likes to blame Azazeel for his own doubts and unmonkly desires, but those are born of his intelligence and humanity and not from any supernatural source. Faced with questions he can’t answer Hypa finds it easier to blame the devil than to look too hard into himself.
Why has everything gone dark? The light of faith which used to shine inside me, the peace of mind which kept me company in my loneliness, like a candle in the night, my serenity within the walls of this gentle room, even the daylight sun, I see them today extinguished and abandoned.
Hypa’s faith has partly been damaged by his scholarship, which has led to him seeing parallels between some Christian teachings and the pre-Christian pagan beliefs of his ancestors, but more by what he’s seen. Hypa witnessed the rise of Bishop Cyril in Alexandria. He was there for the brutal death of the philosopher Hypatia, flayed to death by a mob fuelled with religious hysteria. He’s seen how issues of doctrinal difference can be blown up and exploited for temporal power.
Bishop Cyril here is a character all too familiar to us today. He uses religion as a weapon to increase his own authority and to destroy his chosen enemies. He comes from a religion of love, but preaches only hate. Here Hypa speaks with him and Cyril explains his absolutist philosophy:
Then, in a moment of courage or stupidity, lowering my voice, I asked him in all politeness, ‘And what, your Holiness, are the sciences which are of no benefit, that I might know them and make sure I avoid them?’
‘Good monk, they are the absurdities of the heretics and the delusions of those who devote themselves to astronomy, mathematics and magic. Understand that and stay away from such things, that you may follow in the ways of the Lord and the paths of salvation. If you seek history, then you have the Pentateuch and the Book of Kings. If you seek rhetoric, you have the books of the prophets. If you seek poetry, then you have the psalms. If you seek astronomy, law and ethics, you have the glorious law of the Lord. Arise now, monk, and join the prayers, and perhaps our Lord the living Christ will grace you with a kindly glance.’
Today’s Cyrils are blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, banning or burning books, enraging their followers to acts of barbarism in the name of protecting faiths which hardly seem endangered. The Cyrils of this world are always with us. As Nestorius says (arguably a little unsubtly) “‘Killing people in the name of religion does not make it religious. […] Don’t confuse matters, my son, for those are people of power, not people of faith, people of profane cruelty, not of divine love.’”
For Hypa Alexandria is “the capital of salt and cruelty.” When he first arrived there he found himself through mischance in a relationship with a local woman who turns out to be pagan, and who disturbs him with her hatred of Christians (it takes him a while to get up the courage to mention that he’s a monk).
He studies briefly with Hypatia, then joins Cyril’s flock and learns that the Christians hate the pagans just as fiercely as the pagans hate them. Once Cyril’s Christians have destroyed the pagans, however, they easily turn their fury on those who worship the same god as them but in slightly different fashion.
The core question of the age is the nature of Christ; his “hypostasis”. Is Christ a mortal man born of woman through whom we perceive god, or is he god taken physical form? Here are Nestorius’ and Cyril’s respective takes on the issue:
I asked Nestorius, ‘Master, do you believe that Jesus is God, or is He the messenger of God?’
‘The Messiah, Hypa, was born of man, and humans do not give birth to gods. How can we say that the Virgin gave birth to a god and how can we worship a child a few months old, just because the Magi bowed down and worshipped him? The Messiah is a divine miracle, a man through whom God appeared to us. God became incarnate in Him to make of Him a harbinger of salvation and a sign of the new age of mankind, as Bishop Theodore explained to us yesterday…
He wiped his brow with the palm of his hand, and said, ‘Look at Bishop Cyril’s power of expression when he says “God is made one with the flesh hypostatically, for He is the God of all and He is neither His own slave nor His own master. Like us, He came to be under the law, while at the same time Himself speaking the law and being a lawgiver like God. He is one hypostasis, one person, one nature, son and Lord, and since the holy Virgin brought forth corporeally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we call her Mother of God.” Bishop Cyril is very eloquent, Hypa, and he knows what he is saying, and he will never go back on what he has said, and Bishop Nestorius will never retract his belief that God adopted Jesus as a manifestation of Himself, and for the sake of God the unseen we worship the visible Jesus, aware that they are two persons, that is, according to Nestorius, Christ the Assumer, or the Logos of God, and Christ the Assumed Man who is called by the name which he adopted.’
It takes no small skill firstly just to make a modern atheist like myself even understand the issue they’re discussing and secondly to make me care about it. I cared though because they do, because to Nestorius and Hypa and Cyril and others this is a vitally important issue.
After the atrocities in Alexandria Hypa moves to a small and remote monastery where he finds himself much happier. Even there though the world cannot be escaped, and he finds himself in love with the widow Martha who comes to sing in the local church choir. The very first chapter refers to Martha and we know she’s Hypa’s greatest temptation, one that perhaps most of us today would urge him to give in to just as his Azazeel does. I’m not religious, but if I’m wrong and there is a god they would I hope forgive love.
The conceit that everything we read is Hypa’s written record of his life doesn’t always quite work. Occasionally Hypa and Azazeel argue, and I found it slightly incredible that as Hypa wrestled with his externalised conscience he dutifully wrote down their exchanges:
The velvet folds and the train of the dress with the gilt stitching rippled with each graceful step that brought her floating towards me. ‘I see you like description, but that’s enough. Carry on with your account of what happened. Your description of Martha excites me.’ ‘Get thee hence, Azazeel.’
Ironically then the weakest part of this otherwise fascinating and surprisingly engaging novel is the character it’s named after, Azazeel. Every time Hypa argues with Azazeel/himself I remembered I was reading a novel. Fortunately it doesn’t happen that often and it certainly isn’t a fatal flaw. It’s a consequence of Ziedan’s chosen structure at times clashing with some of the points he wishes to make.
I’ve intentionally included some fairly dense quotes here as I wanted to bring out the nature of the debates the characters are having within the fiction, but I don’t want to make this sound like a dry book. It’s dense with life. The tragedy of it is that while the details of why and how we kill each other change over time, the death and the cruelty remain all too familiar. Fortunately, Ziedan also reminds us that while the Cyrils remain with us so too do the Hypas.
The review which first put me on to this novel was Stu’s at Winston’s Dad’s Blog, here. Although this isn’t remotely a fantasy novel and contains absolutely no fantastic elements, there’s a good (but spoiler-rich) review at the Fantasy Book Review site here. If you know of others please let me know. Azazeel won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction so I’m a little surprised it’s not received more attention than I’m aware of.