October 4, 2008

Yesterday I've just finished reading my 8th historical novel in a row. The novels are (sorted by the sequence I read it):
  1. Anchee Min, Empress Orchid
  2. Robert Harris, Imperium
  3. Anchee Min, The Last Empress
  4. Tariq Ali, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree
  5. Tariq Ali, The Book of Saladin
  6. Tariq Ali, The Stone Woman
  7. Tariq Ali, A Sultan in Palermo
  8. Pearl S. Buck, Imperial Woman
Anchee Min's books and Pearl Buck's novel are about the life of Empress Dowager Cixi who effectively ruled China for almost 50 years in the late 19th century. They painted Cixi in a very differently way, almost opposite each other. Buck's Cixi was a strong and powerful woman who was corrupted by the power itself. Min's Cixi was someone who had to continually struggle to balance the powerful forces in the court.

Imperium is the story about the early career of Cicero. It has similarity to Min's Cixi, where Cicero had to play between the powerful Roman aristocracy, the corrupt and rich Crassus, and the great military general Pompey in order to achieve power.

The novels of Tariq Ali are stories about love, religious and political conflicts. The Shadows of Pomegranate Tree told us a story about an Arabian family in Spain, just 8 years after the fell of Grenada to Christian kingdoms. The repressive Christian rule would force them to make a decision: convert to a new religion, flee to Africa, or fight to the death.

The Book of Saladin's main character was a Jew whose assignment was to write the biography of Sultan Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (better known in English literature as Saladin). So it's really a story about Saladin, from childhood, to how he came to power, the lastly how he reconquer Jerusalem. The book ends there before the famous encounter with King Richard the Lionhearted.

The Stone Woman tells the story about a noble Turkish family around the turn of the century in 1899. The Turkish Ottoman Caliphate had became the sick man of Europe, and the people begin to talk about the reform that was need in order to survive in a modern world.

And the main character in "A Sultan in Palermo" is Muhammad al-Idrisi, the famous Muslim scholar in the court of Sultan Rujari of Sicily. Sultan Rujari was actually King Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily whose reign in the middle of the Crusades was marked by peaceful and tolerant rule over his mostly Muslim and Arab subjects. But still, they knew it won't last forever, and sooner or later the conflict would come.

All four of Tariq Ali's novels involved characters from different race and religion. Diversity seems to be the main theme. The other dominant theme I noticed is the memory of the former glory and strength of the Islamic Empire and it's different reaction to it's ongoing decline. Even Saladin at the height of his power was lamenting the fragmentation and conflicts between muslim factions.

In a way the other four novels is also about the memory of the past glory and the realisation of the bleak future. China in the late 19th century was also the sick man of Asia. The Qing Dynasty could no longer live in the past. They must reform (like Japan -- their enemy) or die. Either way Cixi was too late to start the reform and the Qing Dynasty died with her.

Cicero also lived in the end of the Roman Republic. His ideals would soon swallowed by powerful tyrannies that was to be the Empire and the old Platonian Republic would be no more.

Well, while it's all only in the novels, it's all in the past, and it's all happened in far and foreign nations, why do I feel that it's all very similar to what is happening here, right now, in Indonesia?

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