I’m baffled, because I really liked Maalouf’s [b:Ports of Call|232071|Ports of Call|Amin Maalouf|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348941431s/232071.jpg|1552948]. But this flat and colorless book is halfway between fiction and history/biography, and manages to encompass the worst of both worlds: not enough background or historical detail for nonfiction, and not nearly enough plot and character for fiction.
Despite the title, Samarkand is a book about Iranian history. Which means that on top of just having wasted my time on a fucking terrible book, I don't even get to count it for Uzbekistan! Where the hell else am I going to find a book set in Uzbekistan?
The first half centers on the life of Omar Khayyam, a famous 11th century poet. The second half is set in the early 20th century and narrated by Benjamin Lesage, an American who visits the country. The two parts have little to do with each other beyond Benjamin’s rather halfhearted interest in Khayyam’s work, apparently stemming more from boredom than anything else, and both parts are equally lifeless.
The first half reads like a halfhearted biography of Khayyam; the beginning has some decent scene-setting, but the plot doesn’t focus in on anything in particular, the characters don’t come to life, and the narrative often skips years or decades or jumps to a different point-of-view. Interesting or transformative moments in the characters' lives are explained or even skipped where they should be shown, and historical background that ought to be explained is often left unsaid. The editor bears some of the blame for this; when translating a book that assumes familiarity with 11th century Middle Eastern history into English, it would be advisable to at least include an introduction explaining the basics. But even that might be forgivable if there were any plot momentum or character development.
The second half reads like a halfhearted history of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Benjamin is a cipher: an American rich kid who keeps traveling to Iran at moments of political importance and hangs out there for years despite political turmoil, for no particularly compelling reason. This half can’t be faulted for not explaining enough; I did learn some history from it, but again, there is zero plot momentum, while Benjamin neglects his own story for chapters on end, for instance, to explain how the new government selected a treasurer. (I am not making this up!) There are authors who can integrate history lessons into a novel and keep it engaging--Michener and his ilk do it well--but Maalouf is not among them. He manages to make a dramatic time period flat and tedious, and displays no storytelling ability at all; interesting bits are briefly summarized while routine interactions are developed into scenes and chapters. Meanwhile, there’s not a single interesting character in the second half of the book--even though a few of the historical figures were probably fascinating. The romance is best not even mentioned.
Russell Harris’s translation may be partially responsible for all this; it’s certainly not good, littered as it is with grammatical and spelling errors. At times it’s just plain nonsensical: “he told us with an imperceptibly triumphant tone of voice.” Um...?
Overall, this painfully boring book left me feeling that Maalouf was interested in two specific time periods in Iranian history, but wouldn’t commit to just writing nonfiction. He can write an engaging story, but I’d never have known it from reading Samarkand.