I Stared at the Night of the City
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By Bakhtiyar Ali
Translated by Kareem Abdulrahman.
WINNER OF THE ENGLISH PEN AWARD
Iraqi Kurdistan at the turn of the twenty-first century is a territory ruled by strongmen, revolutionaries, fixers, bureaucrats and the "Barons", who control everything from livestock and land to Kurdish cultural life. Defying the absolute power wielded by the Barons, a band of friends led by a poet embarks on an odyssey to find the bodies of two lovers killed unjustly by the authorities. The Barons respond by attempting to crush these would-be avengers, though their real war is waged against the imagination itself - despite the fact that imagination in its myriad forms is a prized, elusive commodity for which intellectuals, merchants, political elites and humble workers all search in one way or another.
The stark realities of a rapidly changing yet still traumatised society are woven through with elements of the fantastic: a boy is born with a poem etched into his chest; a wild-eyed mystic consummates his love for a married woman in the spirit world; a political assassin discovers compassion and can no longer kill; a Hollywood film buff leads a cluster of blind children on an imaginary sea journey.Bakhtiyar Ali's visionary novel is a soulful meditation on both political and poetic power. The Gardens of the Imagination is a trip, in more ways than one: a tale of people travelling great distances in their minds or with their feet. It is a phantasmagoric, lyrical interpretation of contemporary Kurdistan, so much in the news nowadays but otherwise so little known.
Told by several unreliable narrators in a kaleidoscope of fragments that all eventually cohere, the author manages the neat trick of dipping the reader into a mesmerising fantasia just long enough before wrenching her or him back to hard, cold "real life". Bakhtiyar Ali has said that he wrote this novel in part to "end the subordination of Kurdish writers to the will of politicians" - but he has made real poetry out of this protest.I Stared at the Night of the City is a trip, in more ways than one: a tale of extraordinary people traveling great distances, in their minds or with their feet. It is a lyrical interpretation of contemporary Kurdistan, so much in the news nowadays but otherwise so little understood.Told by several unreliable narrators in a kaleidoscope of fragments that all eventually cohere, the novel manages the neat trick of dipping readers into a fantasia just long enough before wrenching them back to hard, cold 'real life'.