The Blue Manuscriptby Sabiha al Khemir Published 01 Nov 2008
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A quest for the legendary Blue Manuscript of medieval Islam becomes a voyage of self-discovery for characters from east and west in this fascinating, many-layered novel. The Blue Manuscript is the ultimate prize for any collector of Islamic treasures. But does it still exist, and if so, can it be found? In search of answers to these questions, an assortment of archaeologists heads for a remote area of Egypt, where they work with local villagers to excavate a promising site.But as social and cultural preconceptions amongst both visitors and hosts start to unravel, the mystery seems only to deepen and darken ... What do the fables of the village storyteller mean for the westerners, and can their emotional equilibrium and scholarly integrity survive exposure to the realities of the world they have studied from afar?
Interspersed with the testimony of the early medieval calligrapher who created the Blue Manuscript, Sabiha Al Khemir’s subtle, graceful narrative builds into a rich tapestry of love, hope, despair, greed, fear and betrayal. Intensified at every turn by the uneasy relationship between Islam past and present, and between Islam and the West, The Blue Manuscript is a novel which will resonate long after the astonishing solution to its mystery has finally been revealed.
"The Blue Manuscript" Reviews
So I didn't "read" it. I was about 100 pages into it and really didn't care about any of the characters and couldn't really remember what was happening. So I returned it to the library.
When Verso Books was having a sale at the beginning of the year, I took advantage of the large discounts and purchased The Blue Manuscript by Sabiha Al Khemir. The fictional story had a fascinating plot that assembled an international cast of characters to an archaeological site in Egypt digging for the Blue Manuscript. Unbeknownst to me at the time when I made the purchase, the story was set in the 1980s, which happened to be when I travelled to Egypt. In addition, al Khemir employed flashbacks to early 970s to the time of Caliph al-Muizz's time in order to tell the manuscript's origin story. I looked up Al Khemir and learned that she was fromTunisia and having studied Islamic art as well as serving as curator of Islamic art for multiple museum, she was an expert on the subject. She excels with her ability to integrate her practice knowledge and experience to create a thoughtful fictional story.
There were a couple of reasons I was interested in this book, beyond the low price. First, I was anxious to read a fictional story written by a Middle Eastern writer because I figured my reading experience would be enhanced by a non-American writer. I was not disappointed. Al Khemir wrote intelligently creative prose that flowered the story, teasing out the small details of everyday life, resulting in unique imagery.
Secondly, I wanted to read a story about Egypt and indeed, I got two stories in one book. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, there was the main story of the archaeological team out on a dig for a season looking for the Blue Manuscript while one of the subplots is of the document's origin back in 970s. Al Khemir developed complex emotional characters that ring true and embody the human spirit and all of its inherent flaws. Emotions run from joy, hope, sadness and despair. The secondary story follows Caliph al-Muizz and his family as he travels into Egypt with the intent to take the territory and make it part of his empire. I found the origin of the manuscript fascinating and I found myself caught with the team, wondering if they would find it. Also, the colorful local Egyptians, some from other locales that settled in Egypt, had fascinating backstories that added a layer of complexity and enjoyment to the story.
The only issue that I struggled with was how Al Khemir handled the omnipresent third person perspective. In the opening pages, I had to get used to characters supposedly saying a line of dialogue, they were in quotes, only to find out that the character didn't say the line of dialogue and instead thought the lines. Sometimes it was difficult to to determine who actually spoke and who thought a response back. Otherwise, Al Khemir wrote a well researched intriguing story and I definitely got my money's worth and then some.
The Blue Manuscript is a serious read. I saw a U-Tube clip of the author presenting the book at the U.S. National Book Festival and I was intrigued. Sabiha Al Khemir weaves a tale that is far deeper than a narrative of an interesting story. We learn a great deal about Egypt, archaeology, Islamic calligraphy (art) and life. If we spend the time, we end up seeing ourselves and, humanity in general, through each character’s strengths and challenges. This is about the human condition and could not come at a better time in world history. I love the fact it is in paperback and have purchased it as gifts for friends who love to read. I look forward to the author’s next book. Her writing will make a difference.
I couldn't get into this book. I returned it to the library.
I mostly enjoyed this novel, set in Egypt in the recent past and concerning an archaeological dig at an obscure, remote spot some distance from Cairo. I continually felt it had somewhat rough edges, but I'm not certain how to characterize those flaws. The writing is imperfect, but much more polished than some popular novels I've read in the past couple of years (some awkward redundancies, too much passive tense). There's also a remoteness to the telling of the story, although we get tantalizing glimpses inside the thoughts of many of the characters throughout.
That brings up one of my favorite things about this story -- the seemingly random feelings and observations of several very different people who are members of the archaeological team. This was very uneven, though. We sense that Zohra functions as a clear proxy for the author, as a Tunisian-European woman who's lived mostly in London. We see occasionally into the minds of a younger German male team member (called "Glasses"), the Italian female archaeologist who enchants him, and Mark, who has suspicious motives for joining the team. Others, however, remain mostly blank -- the Japanese photographer who produces aerial views of the dig by flying a kite; the Irish professor who leads the team (although we too repeatedly share his concerns that the dig might not unearth the ceramic evidence in which he is most interested). Several local people weave in and out of the story again and again, and they add a great deal of interest -- but we're not so much inside their heads.
The "Blue Manuscript" of the title is a 10th-century work of Arabic calligraphy that may or may not be buried at this site. Its beauty is legendary -- the Quran written in gold-leaf ink on vellum dyed with lapis lazuli. Other favorite parts of this book, for me, were the chapters set in the distant past, especially when the master calligrapher is seen doing his work on this marvelous codex.
I think I'm going to remember the atmosphere and feelings of this novel for a very long time. That's definitely a big plus. But while reading, I sometimes felt impatient with the slow passing of time. The author certainly conveyed that deliberately -- the reader must get that sense of tedium to appreciate the end of the story. It required a large effort, though, to stick with the book through the second half.
From my review in the Times Literary Supplement:
"The Blue Manuscript naturally invites comparison with another multi-layered novel featuring a textual MacGuffin: AS Byatt’s Possession. Both present multiple plotlines, and an international cast searching for the secret of an antique text. Both use long passages set outside the immediate narrative present to establish historical and emotional perspective. Clearly, The Blue Manuscript has admirably large ambitions. Its flaws unfortunately occur on a comparable scale; the final effect is one of over-reaching.
The prose is particularly strained. Laboured phrase-making raises a veil of artificiality, obscuring and suppressing the fictional world. This is perhaps intended to give the sense of the mythic or otherworldly, but produces a constant distraction. Long passages considering the nature of time, love, and culture could be removed (and the book significantly shortened) to produce a leaner, sturdier novel. This would also give the most effective sections the prominence they deserve. Interestingly, the theory of horror vacui plays a small role in the story, but unlike in the Islamic art the author describes, overabundance here means no one image or metaphor is ever allowed to settle in the mind before another displaces it. Less certainly isn’t more, but it’s sometimes more effective."