Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan
Review by travelswithadiplomat
Azazeel is a novel infused with history, theology, the desire for power, intellectualism, and an inner struggle for answers that means every reader can find a thread that will strike chords both sonorous and discordant. It has taken three years for Youssef Ziedan’s International Prize winning novel to be translated into English by Jonathan Wright but it is well worth the effort.
The self-narration follows a Coptic monk, Hypa – a self-given name in homage to the great female Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia – as he travels from Upper Egypt, to Alexandria and then Syria over a twenty year period. It is a story of a monk who permits his inner demon to manifest as Azazeel, of a man gifted in the medicinal arts, of a man who explicitly understands love yet struggles to reconcile his passionate affairs with Octavia and Martha. Overarching all these dilemmas is a story of a man who is “one ambiguity after another, and ambiguity is the opposite of faith just as Satan is the opposite of God”. Yet, for Hypa, his writing serves but one purpose: “confess to these scrolls, concealing no secrets, in the hope that I will find salvation.”
The novel commences with our twenty year old monk, a man deemed suitable for monastic life by his teacher at the church in Akhmim, meeting with the ailing Bishop Theodore and his protégé, Nestorius. It is a time in Christianity dominated by the intellectual. A time for laying out doctrine and creating schisms against a backdrop of a waning Roman Empire. A time to use a blossoming Christianity to control secular power, control life itself. A time ripe for Azazeel. Hypa, a man “who doubts his own baptism” is sent to Alexandria by Nestorius, to fulfil personal desire to study theology and medicine, to understand the nature of the church with its painful embers of its dealings with long dead Arius, its riotous anger of Bishop Cyril, its struggle between faith and philosophy. His journey leads him to be washed up on the shores of Alexandria where he falls into a hedonistic dream of desire and lust with the enigmatic, pagan, Octavia. Three days spent after a baptism in the sea lost in the reality of his inner desires – books and love surrounded by a cocoon of fear. He questions his actions in the light of his belief in becoming a monk, yet never once chooses to do anything else other than indulge, finding intelligent reasoning with the whisper of Azazeel.
After three days he is cast out by Octavia as she realises that he is no Theodhoros Poseidonios, but a man imbued with all that is an anathema to her. What follows is Hypa’s witness to the baying of the Alexandrian mob, and to the evil that fear and raging fervour can bring. He is ineffectually aghast at seeing Hypatia’s being dragged over the sharp stones, her skinning with shells, her murder and conflagration, her “wails of pain [that] had reached to the vaults of Heaven where God and his angels and Satan watched and did nothing.” It is an act that sends him running from Alexandria to seek solace in Syria. Alexandria – a city craved by the Romans, home to Cleopatra, resting place of Bishop Georgios, haunt of Cyril. A city for “people of power, not people of faith, people of profane cruelty, not of divine love.”
By mid novel the author has Hypa arrive at his final sojourn, at a monastery that “looked like the final stopping place on my incessant travels”. Located a few miles north of Aleppo, it is already a broken place with a few monks and an Abbot. Hypa is able to establish himself, to form a library, to question without ever entering the closed box building on the eastern side. A monastery perched high on a hill with three sheer sides, with a higgledy-piggledy jumble of village houses at it base, guarded by ten Roman legionaries. It is perfect for a monk with a troubled soul. Hypa becomes a revered doctor, saving the lives of many, gaining a reputation for quiet reflection, solemn study. A man who Nestorius comes to visit as he rises to become Bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius consults Hypa on a single trip as he feuds with Cyril, leaves Hypa to never be seen again; heard about through reports of excommunication. Closer to Hypa the hypostatis Pharisee monk vies with him on dogma, ideology, the nature of holiness.
Yet all this is swept easily aside as Martha arrives in the village. A vision in beauty with the voice of the morning lark, she inspires a passion in Hypa that takes him back to Hypa. His passion is tempered by age, yet he allows himself to indulge in his desires in a manner that Azazeel craves. For days he is lost again in Life, that which Azazeel needs in order to grow. For Azazeel does not “exist independently of you. I am you, Hypa, and I can only be in you…Incarnation is a myth.” Eventually Martha realises she cannot marry a monk and leaves against her will for Aleppo whilst Hypa falls into a fever for twenty days, attempting again to reconcile what he is taught must be true against the clamouring of his mind and heart. By the end, his is recovered, Azazeel falls silent, and his personal exegesis is complete.
One sentence leapt out as I read this novel, a question Azazeel asks of Hypa but also one that provokes uneasiness in any author: “Was your soul immaculate…before you began to write?”. The answer to that can only be glimpsed when the pages of any book come to their end and a reader is able to sit in judgement on a soliloquy by form, an imagination by desire, a skill by method. I found that Youssef Ziedan spoke to me on history, on early Christianity, on politics, on logical and madness. I read of fear and hope, of joy and sadness. Watched passion and rage both within a single person and inside an entire city. Out of it all comes the theme that life is what Azazeel craves to indulge in. For Azazeel death has no meaning. For Hypa life is a voyage with several stopping points, where solitude and calm are needed and craved as much as passion and fervour. It is a novel with something for everyone, a novel that lends to the personal knowledge of the author, a novel that is accessible by the intellectual and the dreamer.
I can see why it has won its accolades. It is worth the time and effort to read.
Amin from Cairo
I'm not used to read novels any more since high school; but Azazeel forced me to read it from cover to cover. All youth people agreed that after few pages of reading they couldn't wait until they finished it. It was a top seller for many months. I remember when I lost the 15th edition to find that i bought the 21st edition few weeks later. A friend of mine bought the 31st. It is not easy these days in Egypt to find a novel that sells this way. Dr Zidan, style is about letting you feel all the characters internal so that you feel you are the main character himself. Then he finishes but letting you an imaginary life that you keep think about character. Azazeel, made me addicted to Dr Youssef writings either as books or novels. Look for the next two novels translated to English; Al-Nabti and Mohal. Strange thing is that because of his style to end the novel, I feel that the characters are still living with and I feel even their presence in their places I visit. It is not just a novel it a masterpeace.
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