This is a novel that I wanted to like more than I did. The novel was billed as a “contemporary tragedy of epic proportions”, basically it promised to tell the calamitous story of all that has befallen Iraq in the past few decades, but from an Iraqi perspective. There is much literature about the country, both non-fiction and fiction, though most we read in the west is written by us: westerners, Americans and British. Much of this canon of work is well meaning, a lot of it is insightful and has real worth. But what has been lacking is an Iraqi voice. There is some work published by Iraqis, but not a lot.
So, I hoped that Muhsin Al-Ramli would help fill that void that appears on my bookshelf. To a certain extent, he undoubtedly did. There is much to be admired in this novel, which tells the story of three friends and their immediate families. At risk of sounding patronising, they’re simple folk, peasants from the country who till the land, rear goats, and very rarely stray afar. Then the war with Iran breaks out, a conflict that was as traumatising for the peoples of those two nations as the Great War of 1914 to 1918 was to Europe. The war with Iran was supposed to be quick, but lasts almost a decade; then, just when peace is established, Iraq’s tyrant Saddam Hussein opts to invade Kuwait. Once again, the village and our three protagonists’ lives are torn asunder as America and her allies kick Saddam’s troops out of the Emirate. One of the friends gets a job as a gardener in one of the presidential palaces (where the book gets its name) and here he sees first-hand the barbarity of the Saddam regime. Then finally, we reach 2003 and the invasion of Iraq. Saddam is deposed and the country spirals into a horrific cycle of crime and sectarian murder.
That’s the basic storyline, so what didn’t I like? Well no doubt I’m going to get critical comments about this, but I found The President’s Garden just too rambling in places. I felt that the publisher needed to reign the author in, that parts of the book needed editing. This is the first novel by the author, Muhsin Al-Ramli, that I’ve read, but apparently, he is an accomplished novelist, academic and poet. Perhaps this explains things. In my experience, writers who reach the pinnacle of their profession can often do what they like; where a lesser author would feel the editor’s pen, they don’t. A good example of this phenomenon is Stephen King, some of who’s novels in my opinion could easily lose 100 pages or so. King and Al-Ramli might be working in different genres, but I had the same feeling reading parts of The President’s Garden as I have had when reading some of the horror master’s longer works.
At risk of contradicting all that I’ve just said, at 352 pages, The President’s Garden isn’t that long a novel. But it cuts off almost mid-sentence, which is odd. Apparently, there’s a sequel to come which picks up exactly where this ended. Presumably the sequel will be of a similar length. So, that will be, what? 700 pages in all? Which begs the question, if Al-Ramli had been more disciplined and had written a tighter manuscript, would there be a need for such a strange cut off at the end of the first novel? Would there be need for a sequel at all?
2 out of 5 stars