‘The President’s Gardens’ by Muhsin Al-Ramli (Review)

For those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties, Iraq has never been far from the news headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons, and over the past few years, books telling of life in the country have started to be translated into English, particularly since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  However, today’s choice takes a longer view of events.  Rather than focusing on the aftermath of the invasion, or looking at an isolated incident, the author follows a small group of friends over a period of decades.  In the process, it tells the story of a country plunging into the depths of a catastrophe, one it still hasn’t managed to claw its way out of…

*****
Muhsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens (translated by Luke Leafgren, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) starts rather dramatically, with an early-morning discovery the finder would rather not have stumbled across:

In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons.  Along with each head was an I.D. card to identify the victim since some of the faces were completely disfigured, either by torture before the beheading or by something similar after the slaughter.  The characteristic features by which they had been known through all the years of their bygone lives were no longer present to distinguish them.
p.7 (MacLehose Press, 2017)

As the village awakes to the gruesome discovery, one of the nine heads causes particular distress to Abdullah Kafka (so called for his nihilistic views on life).  His best friend Ibrahim is among the casualties, bringing to an end a close relationship spanning decades.

At this point, the story takes us back in time to when three youths, Abdullah, Ibrahim and the third member of their band, Tariq (nicknamed ‘the Befuddled’), roamed the village dreaming of a bright future.  Tariq, the son of the village’s spiritual leader, takes on his father’s role and manages to become a respected (and wealthy) model citizen, but his friends will not be so lucky.  The ensuing decades are to be times of war and hardship, and Ibrahim’s nickname, ‘the Fated’ is to prove unfortunately apt.

The President’s Gardens is fascinating tale in which the writer introduces a tragic event before taking the reader back in time to see how we got there.  It’s a story of the country’s recent history which is told through the experiences of three friends born in 1959, a generation living through turmoil, but it’s also a history lesson for those unfamiliar with these events.  Abdullah and Ibrahim are unlucky enough to be conscripted for military service just before the Iran-Iraq war breaks out, and when it seems as if the country (and the friends) are recovering, Saddam’s disastrous decision to invade Kuwait sends Ibrahim back into the war zone.

Al-Ramli doesn’t shy away from describing the hardship his people faced.  We learn of Abdullah’s captivity and torture in Iran, before the story moves on to the events of the following decade:

What they saw was a true hell in all its horrors.  In their entire lives, they had never seen, nor would they ever see again, an event as terrifying as this, a madness incarnate.  Severed body parts and scraps of metal were scattered amid tongues of flame and the thunder of explosions.  The road was transmogrified into an explosion of fire, smoke, limbs, blood, destruction, ashes, death.  It was a highway of death, on which and around which everything that moved was ground together in flames. (p.70)

Through Ibrahim’s eyes, we experience life on the front line, or rather carnage in the desert, yet the effects of war aren’t restricted to death and mutilation.  The use of chemical weapons in the earlier conflict brings unexpected consequences for one of the group.

The twist in the novel comes when Ibrahim needs to move to the city to get better medical attention for his dying wife, with Tariq’s contacts coming up with a well-paid, exclusive position.  The catch?  The war hero is sworn to secrecy (not that he’d be tempted to open his mouth about his new job).  Ibrahim’s first task is to tend to the gardens of the title, catching a terrifying glimpse of the country’s leader in the process.  Later, he is given a new position, one that comes with more money and prestige, but involves some even dirtier work.

The President’s Garden is an enjoyable read on many levels, and Leafgren has done excellent work in producing a flowing English text with a distinct style, using exaggeration and anecdotes, as well as providing a sense of elegance and tranquility.  Al-Ramli teases the reader a little, introducing several ideas in passing, only to leave us in the dark as to the full story.  It’s only later, when he circles back to fill in the gaps, that we understand the full significance of, or motives for, certain actions (such as why Ibrahim’s daughter is so keen to find her father’s body).

Part of the pleasure of the novel is the picture the writer develops of the main character’s home village.  It’s a very different kind of place to that most readers will be used to, with the men tempted to take multiple wives (and often under pressure to marry widows).  Everyone knows everyone else (and their business), and when there’s something to celebrate, there’s gallons of tea, but not a drop of alcohol in sight.  Yes, there’s a lot of trauma, but some of the best scenes show that life goes on, too.

One slight issue I did have with the book was the structure.  The President’s Garden’s contains several major strands which, at times, seem to act against each other.  The secret of Abdullah’s birth swings between a major development and a minor detail, and when Ibrahim gets his new job, the story almost develops into a new book (and, to be honest, probably could have).  Al-Ramli does tie everything together eventually, but (for this reader, at least) it felt a little unbalanced at times.

These are minor quibbles as, for the most part, The President’s Gardens is an excellent novel, entertaining, informative, thought-provoking and well-written; of the few Iraqi books I’ve read, it’s probably the one I’ve enjoyed most, largely due to the extended scope.  More importantly, though, Al-Ramli’s novel reminds us that the casualties we hear about in the news are real people, each with their own lives:

Each head had a story.  Every one of these nine heads had a family and dreams and the horror of being slaughtered, just like the hundreds of thousands slain in a country stained with blood since its founding and until God inherits the earth and everyone on it.  And if every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue. (p.12)

Every victim has a story, and this is Al-Ramli’s attempt to tell just a few of them.

*****
Other books from Iraq covered on my site (links are to my reviews):
The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press: translated by Jonathan Wright)
The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (Yale University Press: translated by the author)
Iraq +100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion (Comma Press: edited by Hassan Blasim) 

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