N.B this is a review of an uncorrected ARC
The mournful cry of a dying lion, the smooth hand of a mason, the sour smell of a poor man’s breath, belly brewed with hunger… I enjoyed this book. Paul Cooper is a talented writer and lovers of Antiquity, Mesopotamia, and historical fiction like Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things will find much to enjoy here.
All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite (I really loved River Of Ink), but I am glad serious historical fiction, unafraid of being literary, is still being produced. It tells the story…well, really, it tells two stories which interact and intersect in interesting ways. The first of these is about two peasant children in the Assyrian empire at the time of Ashurbanipal. The story opens with the dull flatness of the interior, where the chance encounter between Sharo and Aurya, a lion (really my favourite element), and the king himself set off the chain of events which drive the novel. The other story, concerns Katya, an archaeologist (palaeobotanist?) caught up in fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014.
This conceit of using two distinct timelines, really one story told diachronically, is an interesting part of the book and as I write this I am struggling to think of the last time I saw this used in a memorable manner. Perhaps Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – thought that book had a much more truncated timeline (WW1 to the present) and therefore much more immediacy between both halves of the story. Cooper makes excellent use of this device and both “halves” intersect and resonate with one another in ways that only serve to enhance the story. Some of these resonances occur on a basic, pragmatic, level (e.g both take place in Nineveh/Mosul), others are more thematic (lions, belonging, memory…), and they certainly encourage the reader to go back and re-read earlier chapters more carefully.
One of the best of these resonances is the use of the Gilgamesh epic. This seems to be emerging as a trait of Cooper’s historical fiction, though the use of the epic is less direct and more subtle than the use of the Shishupalavadha in River of Ink. This makes sense, since the earlier book directly concerned itself with the translation of that text. In All Our Broken Idols, the text instead is referenced by the characters throughout, often at times which serve to highlight broader plot points narrative themes: The movement from the wilder hinterland to the more “civilised” city, law vs want, the whims and duties of kings, the potency of loss, and even the nature of storytelling itself. The author’s use of the test stays firmly within the realm of the metapoetic and never reaches levels of smarminess.
‘Five years to tell a story, and it ends with no one getting what they want?’
‘They got something else though’
For Sharo and Aurya, the Gilgamesh epic has been handed down by their mother; for Katya, it has been picked up as a book from an Iraqi bazaar. Where does Cooper get his? The excerpts seem much more novel like than I remember from my struggling Akkadian, and the end note suggests that they are the author’s own creation, assembled from various translations. Like a modern Sîn-lēqi-unninni. If you are interested in listening to the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian, click this link to go a wonderful collection of recordings. If, like Katya (and most of us) you want to read the epic I can happily suggest e.g Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia as a good starting point.
I suppose a brief note on each of the different timelines is warranted here.
Sumerian was a language isolate. It was used for such a long time that, like any natural language, it would have changed faster than the differences we see in the written standard. When Akkadian (a Semitic language) speakers took over, they must have brought some first language interference with them to their work in Sumerian. At some point, not only has Sumerian died out, but Akkadian has started to change and may well be giving way to Aramaic in the spoken realm. How much can we really construct of Mesopotamia? Even with our evidence? Is this a boon or a bane to the historical novelist? None the less, the author does a wonderful job in evoking the period. Even little details such as the names for months/seasons, the type of food eaten, the prayers and curses as well as the stories told; all add to this verisimilitude.
Of the two stories, this is my favourite. Perhaps unjustly, for me it is the “real” story. Sharo, and Enkidu, have my sympathies and my interest. Some of the most arresting moments in the book occur in this half of the story. There was a scene, long foreshadowed in the book itself, and easily anticipated by anyone familiar with Assyrian art, that when it happened, I had to put the book down for a moment. Elsewhere, Ashurbanipal strides off the page. His inscriptions have always flickered with his personality, and it would have been easy to get him wrong, paint him as some two-bit Thersites, but instead we get a character that is genuinely kingly. Do we like him? (maybe) do we hate him? (maaaybe?). Either way, he is complicated and interesting. The Assyrian part is really the meat of the story for me, with the present day one mainly interesting when it (or Cooper via it) uses its archaeological remains to tell a story.
Katya’s story begins the best part of 27 centuries later, in the context of an archaeological dig. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the archaeology was done. There was no Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider silliness, nor does it fall for the anachronistic trope of archaeologists picking up and reading inscriptions or documents (let’s name this trope after Boardman, who was brilliant): in fact the one dig site member who can fluently read Akkadian is held in suitable awe. Instead, we get careful descriptions of soil analysis, cataloguing find spots, establishing layers and digging test trenches. Nor does the author shy away from current debates in archaeology about provenance, ethics, and ownership. The archaeological team is, justly, worried about looters and the threat they pose to the past but western academics and collectors are hardly much better. The bitterness, scepticism, and mistrust the locals feel is clearly somewhat warranted. The author handled all this deftly.
‘Just catalogue the damage for now. Piece together the fragments, try and put a story together.’
One thing leapt out at my, and I suspect I am reading too much into this, is Katya’s position within this context. Despite her name, she is not Russian but Half British/Half Iraqi. From a narrative standpoint this makes sense, it allows the author to gird her with a sense of emotional investment in Iraq and its antiquities beyond academic specialism. Her father was an Iraqi reporter who was made to disappear (this is not a spoiler) and this obviously drives her. Where is she on the scale between native and western interloper/academic? At one point a crisis is approaching and she gets into an argument with a native archaeologist on what to do with a find. “It’s my history too” she complains, only to be told to “fucking act like it” if that is the case. On at least one occasion a character comments on her terrible Arabic. Again, I am probably reading too much into this, but I think this is incredibly interesting given the themes of identity and ownership throughout. I shan’t spoil what happens, but I left the book thinking that there is a very real dissonance between Katya as is and Katya how she would like to paint herself. Maybe you need to be a bilingual/immigrant/third-culture kid to see it. Of the modern characters, it is Salim (with his studied nonchalance) and Dr Malik who really stand out.
In June 2014 ISIS took Mosul. That is a story in and of itself, and not a nice one. Cooper pulls few punches (the reality was even worse), and a few things need to be said here. The link between antiquities looting and ISIS was (is?) very real and we know of at least one brave man who died hoping to protect antiquities. Bravo for not shying away from this. If you have the time (and if you are reading this, you probably do) please take a second to read up on Khaled al-Asaad (whom I think Cooper sort of pays tribute to?). The age of heroes is not wholly over.
Lola, one of the best drawn characters in the book, happens to be a Yazidi girl. Few have suffered at the hands of ISIS quite like the Yazidi. It would be easy to focus on how Cooper imbues this character with a kind of quiet, wounded, stoicism, it is harder – but ultimately more right – for us to remember that the Yazidi still exist in a very beleaguered state. I would like to draw your attention to two groups that function as charities and for raising awareness:
Yazda – A multi-national Yazidi global organization established in the aftermath of the Yazidi Genocide in 2014, to support the Yazidi ethno-religious minority and other vulnerable groups.
The Amar Foundation – Runs support for the Yazidi, and other groups, ousted and targeted by ISIS.
It is odd to see ISIS mentioned in historical fiction, but it struck me to what degree historical fiction is conditioned by (dependent on, really) its contemporaneity. I do not mean the old, obvious, canard of any historical enquiry telling us about the present. I mean that, perhaps ironically, in the aftermath of the looting of places like Mosul and Palmyra, with the wounds from ISIS still fresh and ongoing, this may well be the only point in history this story could be told with such poignancy.
It would be terrible to end the review here, on the omnipresence through human history of suffering, on the arbitrariness of violence and hate…especially when the book itself at times strikes some hopeful notes. Memory, family, stories, all these things are real too. All Our Broken Idols is Paul Cooper’s second book, I am not sure if it is my favourite, I certainly hope it is not his last. It is more than recommended.
‘All those people would be dead by now anyway.’
‘That doesn’t matter when you’re reading it. Every time you read it, they come back to life all over again’