The novel starts out with an air of mystery: in 1997, an archaeologist digs up rolls of parchment with Aramaic lettering dating from the first half of the fifth century. The document turns out to be the memoirs of an Egyptian monk, Hypa. There are also marginalia and comments in Arabic on the manuscript, added by another monk, "probably in the fifth century according to Islamic reckoning," in other words, in the 12th century according to the Christian calendar.
The text is translated by an anonymous man from Alexandria, who is by no means happy with his work. In April 2004, he notes, "I have spent seven years translating this text from Syriac into Arabic. But I regret ever having had anything to do with the translation of the story of Hypa the monk, and I am very wary of publishing it while I live."
Telling the story behind a false wall
The idea of a fictional publisher who is unwilling to publish a text which he came upon more or less by accident is a construction which has often been used in the past, especially in post-modernist literature, and it certainly has its attractions. The trick helps to give the text which follows a boost of significance, so to speak.
But paradoxically – and this is what makes the idea so popular in a post-modern context – it also calls the text into question. The uncertainty about its provenance, the claim that it's a translation, and the commentary added later – all feed the suspicion that the text is unreliable. The story takes place, as it were, behind a false wall.
In "Azazeel," which appeared in Cairo in 2008 and was awarded the Arabic Booker prize the following year, Youssef Ziedan has deployed the unreliable publisher to write a historical novel about a period of history of considerable importance in ecclesiastical history. The narrator Hypa is someone who wrestles with himself as he goes on his moral and ethical search. He is put under pressure "to write down everything which has happened in my life" by Azazeel – the "tempter" who was responsible for Adam's exile from the garden with his seductive whisperings.
Andreas Pflitsch; Translated by Michael Lawton
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