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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last of the Angels

Fadhil al-Azzawi

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Title: The Last of the Angels
Author: Fadhil al-Azzawi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 275 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Last of the Angels - US
The Last of the Angels - UK
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The Last of the Angels - India
  • Arabic title: آخر الملائكة
  • Translated by William Hutchins

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing tale of 1950s Kirkuk

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Last of the Angels is set largely in the Kirkuk neighbourhood of Chuqor, in the late 1950s. The relatively poor inhabitants there are mainly Turkmen, with Arabic, Kurdish, and Jewish populations also nearby. The English dominate the local Iraq Petroleum Company -- the greatest source of local wealth (including good-paying jobs).
       Al-Azzawi's tale follows several characters from the neighbourhood in these changing times, the population fairly naïve, easily swayed, and largely illiterate. Jews and Communists are readily blamed for anything bad, without much comprehension of what really lies behind anything, with most decisions reached as if on a whim. Certainly few people -- either the locals or the officials -- think much through. So, for example, the police drag away the local mullah, suspecting he is in league with the Communists, but ultimately decide he isn't and even propose he should act as a security representative for the authorities, reporting on any communist activity; he declines but offers up the services of a poor and needy student who lives in the mosque, but they decide it's not that important -- while the student, of course, turns out not only to be a Communist but: "had transformed the mosque itself into a secret drop point for Party mail."
       Communism is presented as the common enemy, and pretty much everyone readily accepts this -- the godless aspect so troubling that any positives the party-programme might offer are readily overlooked:

If you feel the need to say something, curse Communism; that's the only party a person is allowed to curse in this country.
       This single-minded focus on a common enemy of course blinds all to the many much more real dangers and enemies; this being late-1950s Iraq with its doomed monarchy readers are more aware than the characters of what is to come. The monarch even plays a role here, as the locals turn to him when they have difficulties resolving a local problem (the oil company wants to build a road straight through a cemetery, an abomination that gets everyone up in arms). Meeting him they are quickly disillusioned:
Khidir Musa reflected that this young pampered king in reality possessed no power in the state that he ruled and was merely a decorative garden gnome. The thought that the king himself did not have the power to stop the desecration of the tombs of Khidir Musa's father and grandfathers saddened him. He grasped, perhaps in a murky way, that much blood would be shed and that he was responsible.
       The Last of the Angels begins with Hameed Nylon, who received his 'Nylon'-nickname after he was fired from his job as a chauffeur for an Englishman who worked for the oil company. Apparently he was too forward with the wife of the Englishman, though as with so many things in the neighbourhood what actually transpired remains murky and lost in all the gossip that quickly made the rounds. Nevertheless, this too leads to shaky protests against the oil-powers -- but the workers never manage to get properly organised, while the authorities react more or less randomly as well.
       There are struggles here throughout, but it's never entirely clear who to fight or blame. Typically, as soon as the children discover that the police paint over any Communist propaganda written on the walls they start writing their own, rather than the usual graffiti, just to annoy and get the attention of the police -- who then, of course, think the Communist menace is growing ever faster. Similarly, the local thief is chagrined when unexplained thefts take place on his turf, upsetting the code of honour among thieves. As for the police, they can hardy be counted on for anything.
       Al-Azzawi also introduces fantastical elements, ranging from an episode in which one of the characters goes to the Soviet Union to find his long-lost brothers -- and returns with them triumphantly in a zeppelin -- to a boy who discovers a chest that opens up onto another world. As one character weeps: "All this fantasy ! All this truth !"
       The novel culminates in unavoidable truth, in the form of the violent, bloody coup of 1958. Escapism and naïveté only go so far, and the pretend-order under the gnome-king and the haphazard enforcement of local power eventually crumbles.
       Al-Azzawi's neighbourhood is far from idyllic -- murderers go free, power is abused, everyone seems to merely muddle through as best they can, the outcome sometimes positive and other times not. Yet their fates are ultimately determined by powers far greater than any in the neighbourhood can challenge, from the local English company-men to those fighting for control of the country.
       An odd mix of the comic and fantastic and the grimly real, The Last of the Angels is a bit much of a whirlwind tour of that time and place. Written in an easy, entertaining style, it moves along well and offers a variety of good stories, but the naïve actions (and actors) are hard to fully sympathise with. If it feels a bit to busy and torn in too many directions, and a bit unsure of its tone in its mix of fantasy and reality, The Last of the Angels nevertheless does offer a good picture of northern Iraqi life and society in the late 1950s (with a few lessons that carry over to present times).

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The Last of the Angels: Reviews: Other books by Fadhil al-Azzawi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi (فاضل العزاوي) was born in Kirkuk in 1940, and has lived in Germany since 1977.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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