The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli

The Blurb On The Back:

On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop.

One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated.

How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many?  What did he do to deserve such a death?

The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.

It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle.

It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter.

And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

On the second day of Ramadan in 2006, in a small village in Iraq the herdsman Isma’il finds nine banana crates.  In each banana crate is the severed head of a man from the village, including that of Ibrahim the Fated, and each head shows signs that its owner was tortured.

Ibrahim’s death causes particular sorrow in the village for all who lived there knew of his deep and lasting friendship with Abdullah Kafka (who started life as an abandoned baby found left next to a crevice that doubled as a toilet and spent years as a prisoner of war in Iran) and Tariq the Befuddled (the son of a local sheikh who has taken over his father’s role as spiritual leader and fixer).  And it’s in the formation and life of this friendship that can the roots of Ibrahim’s murder can be found …

First published in 2013 and long listed for the I.P.A.F (the Arabic Booker) Muhsin Al-Ramli’s literary novel (translated from Arabic by Luke Leafgren) is a dreamy, sorrowful lament on Iraq’s tragic history as seen through the prism of male friendship as it’s battered by the demands of village tradition, war and male rivalry but there’s a lack of strong female characters and the abrupt ending was too open-ended for my taste.

Front and centre to this novel is the friendship between Ibrahim, Abdullah and Tariq but while there are strong individual scenes and the actions of one friend impacts on the lives of the other two, I wasn’t quite convinced of the power of their friendship because the long gaps within it (albeit forced) meant that it came across as a plot contrivance at times.  Of the men themselves, Ibrahim and Abdullah have more time spent on their stories than Tariq, which means that they come across as more fully formed and certainly Abdullah’s story is very moving – particularly the revelation of his parentage.  Of the limited cast of female characters, Ibrahim’s daughter Qisma is the most interesting – I enjoyed her complicated relationship with her father and how that ties in with attitudes towards the Iraq regime (although I didn’t quite believe a revelation involving her and the President).  The story unravels in a dreamy, lyrical way that I enjoyed but the ending is abrupt and open-ended, which made me feel quite cheated.

Ultimately although this book didn’t quite do it for me, I enjoyed it enough to look out for translations of Al-Ramil’s other work.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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