The Gardens of Light

The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prise in 2003 for Balthasar’s Odyssey, until this year the most recent of his novels to appear in English. In 1996 his 1991 novel The Gardens of Light was translated from French by Dorothy S. Blair and may very well have been selected then as well had the prize not been temporarily paused. Like almost all of Maalouf’s novels, it is historical (the exception, The First Century after Beatrice, is set in the future). Set in the third century, it tells the life story of Mani, founder of Manichaeism, a religion which sought to unify Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Though now largely forgotten, or remembered only as an adjective, for four hundred years Manichaeism was a popular religion, with believers spread across various empires from Rome to China. Maalouf’s novel is a sincere attempt to imaginatively recreate the life of this important historical figure.

The story begins with Mani’s father, Patek, who himself is a seeker of spiritual truth, on the day he meets the religious teacher Sittai. He warns Patek that enlightenment comes at a cost:

“Truth is an exacting mistress, Patek, tolerating no disloyalty. You owe her all your adoration; every moment of your life must be devoted to her.”

Sittai invites Patek to join his religious community, but warns him he will have to renounce meat, alcohol and women. Patek is already married, and his wife pregnant, but he goes along with Sittae deciding he will collect his child later if it is a boy. Here Maalouf establishes religion as something central to life, which supersedes all other markers of identity including family and rank.

The child is, of course, Mani, who joins his father in the religious community where he now lives. He is a model pupil, in contrast to his best friends, Malchos, who dreams only of leaving, marrying a beautiful woman and starting a profitable business. Here we see the doubleness so important in Manichaeism echoed in Mani’s life. It is as a result of this friendship that Mani begins to visit the home of a Greek in town (strictly forbidden) and there the first seed of the faith he will develop is sown when he asks to restore a mural in the house. Once the work is complete he identifies one of the figures as John the Baptist, “Not at all,” the Greek tells him:

“…there was never any Baptist in this room. It must have been the goddess Demeter, mother of corn, or Artemis, the huntress, or Dionysus, the one all our banquets are dedicated to…”

It seems likely that we are to assume the idea of the interconnectedness of religions originates here. It is not, however, until he is twenty-four that he leaves his father’s community:

“If he stayed on so long with the White-clad Brethren, even though he rejected their practices and their beliefs, even though he suffered every day by having to live cheek by jowl with them, it was possibly because his desire to leave was accompanied by fear to which he was ashamed to admit.”

It’s worth noticing that Maalouf does not attempt to ‘modernise’ Mani by presenting his interior monologue. For the most part we remain on the outside; such aspects as the spiritual twin from whom Mani gets advice are presented at face value.

The most gripping part of the novel recounts Mani’s attempt to establish his religion, a dangerous mission at a time when religion and power are often intertwined, and anything which challenges religious orthodoxy can also be seen as a threat to political order. Mani encounters power when he is sent by the merchants of Deb to sue the Sassanian emperor, currently surrounding the city, for peace. Though the emperor does not convert to Manichaeism, he allows Mani to preach and sees him as a trusted advisor. From then on, however, Mani finds himself embroiled in court battles, opposed by the emperor’s Zoroastrian retinue:

“Many people have warned me against you, Mani, during all these years. Those who are envious and jealous, but also certain people whom I believe to be devoted and sincere… How can you count among your intimates someone who rejoices in your hesitation and will tomorrow grieve over your victories?”

Mani must decide whether to compromise his beliefs in order to ensure they are spread more widely.

As someone who left Lebanon as a result of the civil war of 1975, it’s not difficult to see the attraction for Maalouf of a religious figure who seeks to unite different religions rather than divide. His career as a writer also suggests an interest in demonstrating to Europe (he writes in French) the complex and varied history of the ‘East’. There is little attempt to impose contemporary psychology on his characters which can make them appear flat and distant, but his story-telling is wonderful and the reader quickly becomes entranced by the vibrancy of the setting and the vitality of the tale.

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2 Responses to “The Gardens of Light”

  1. Emma Says:

    I liked this one but my favorite Maalouf is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. I really really recommend it.

    And also Leo Africanus.

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