What a new novel about three friends growing up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq can tell us about human nature
Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli’s brother was executed for planning a coup against Saddam. Yet the narrative here is driven neither by anger nor partisan hate
by Rachel Halliburton
It is typical of the Rabelaisian impudence of this book that the reader does not encounter the title’s subject—the President’s gardens—until towards the end. This extraordinary portrait of three friends growing up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq uses a range of storytelling traditions, infusing tragedy with comedy, the epic with the intimate, and the real with the surreal. From its arresting start—“In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons”—the author evokes both despair and joy in lives perpetually branded by conflict. Part of its power derives from the knowledge that its stories are firmly rooted in history.
Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli’s brother was executed for planning a coup against Saddam, and the book’s opening mirrors the fate that befell nine of his other relatives. Yet the narrative is driven neither by anger nor partisan hate. Through the story of the three friends—the long-suffering Ibrahim, Abdullah and Tariq—paints a portrait of modern Iraq that tips its hat both to the picaresque spark of Cervantes and the magical realism of García Márquez. (Al-Ramli has translated into Arabic.) By the time the book reaches the elaborate gardens where many of Saddam’s victims are buried, it has taken the reader through tragedy, imprisonment and war. Yet the overwhelming impression left is of the indefatigability of the human spirit. A tour de force.