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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Traveler and the Innkeeper

Fadhil al-Azzawi

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Title: The Traveler and the Innkeeper
Author: Fadhil al-Azzawi
Genre: Novel
Written: (1989) (Eng. 2011)
Length: 122 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Traveler and the Innkeeper - US
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  • Arabic title: مدينة من رماد
  • Translated by William M. Hutchins
  • With a Preface by the author
  • Written in 1976; first published (in Arabic) in Germany in 1989

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Our Assessment:

B : effective character-study, if ultimately too underdeveloped

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Masry Al-Youm . 22/5/2011 M.Lynx Qualey

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book sticks close to Husayn, rarely veering off into the other characters’ emotions or histories. We learn almost nothing about Jalil Mahmoud, the childhood friend who Husayn must interrogate. Indeed, Mahmoud is frustratingly blank, pushing the reader into even greater identification with the police inspector. (...) The book’s prose, translated by William Hutchins, is not one of its strong points. The sentences are often heavy and don’t flow easily from one to the next (...) And, while the story line is compelling, the book is not just about the rise and fall of a police inspector. It is also about the possibility of change." - M.Lynx Qualey, Al-Masry Al-Youm

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Traveler and the Innkeeper centers on Qasim Husayn, a police inspector in the Bureau of Public Security in Baghdad, and is set in 1967. In his Preface Fadhil al-Azzawi provides some context, describing Iraq's varyingly repressive governments of the times, and the effect of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War -- which, he notes, led to "the development of a revolutionary mood that the military regime was no longer able to hold in check."
       Inspector Qasim finds an old friend, Jalil Mahmud, among the political prisoners being detained and questioned (i.e. tortured) by the authorities, and decides to involve himself in his case -- though he vacillates as to exactly what he can and should do. Qasim notes that if circumstances had been only slightly different, he may well have found himself in the same position as his old friend: when trying to get Qasim into law school his father had approached the local police chief in Kirkuk for a letter of recommendation, and the police chief convinced him to send the boy to the police academy instead, determining his future; Jalil, meanwhile, studied literature. Qasim knows that if he had gone to university he too may well have become a person the authorities would find suspect. (Jalil is not 'guilty' in any traditional sense, as even the police know, but even the whiff of association with the wrong elements is enough to make him suspect and to give them reason to detain and torture him.) Qasim bought into the law-and-order world of the police, even as he continues to feel contempt for many of his colleagues -- knowing full-well that: "They were all trained to devour those closest to them."
       Qasim is no intellectual, but he feels a yawning emotional void, spending much of his time in lonely musing. As he notes at one point:

My God, I feel like such an invalid even though I am in the best of health. Someone inside me is screaming, but I can't locate the source of the scream.
       The situation gets more complicated when he finds himself falling in love with Jalil's wife, Huda. They start an affair, though it's unclear whether Huda merely wishes to help her husband or has true feelings for Qasim; she suspects Jalil is also in love with another woman.
       Typically, Qasim is among those least prepared for the Six-Day War -- while others worry about what it might lead to he has his doubts that it will even happen: "You're selling fish that are still in the Shatt al-Arab river ! Where is this war ?" But, of course, war comes (and goes, in a flash), and while it does not feel as immediate as elsewhere in the region, its effects are also felt in Baghdad. Essentially it:
swept past people like a fleeting dream that was hard to grasp. It seemed rather like a game but perhaps resembled a fantasy more than anything else. Even so it changed everything. People were no longer the same.
       Huda warns Qasim that their affair isn't secret, and Qasim recklessly goes after the student who Huda fingers as threatening to expose them; in these new, post-war circumstances his aggressive police tactics aren't as readily tolerated, and when the situation escalates he becomes the fall guy, lucky not to be jailed himself. It's all too much for him, and without his position to save him his self-destructive bent leads to the inevitable.
       The Traveler and the Innkeeper isn't really the story of torturer and tortured that the initial premise seems to suggest: Jalil remains a peripheral figure, and it is only in part his friend's situation that gets Qasim thinking. Indeed, at one point:
     Qasim had totally forgotten Jalil during the war and after it, because he was devoting himself to his new victims
       And that seems almost entirely believable.
       Nevertheless, The Traveler and the Innkeeper is about torturer and tortured -- though it is Qasim who inhabits both roles, and the torture is entirely within. Al-Azzawi's character-portrait is a solid one, though too often simply reactive, and too much of the moment; too much of Qasim remains a cipher, as al-Azzawi reveals only his immediate reactions and thoughts, but offers little background or character-development that might suggest what shaped this man. (A rare exception is in the description of how Qasim adapted to police work, which is well done.)
       With a focus that is entirely on Qasim, too much of the story (and too many of the other characters) also remain underdeveloped, with Huda and Jalil coming across as little more than props and prompts. The change in the atmosphere that resulted from the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War -- clearly meant to be a major theme in the novel -- is also not presented as fully as it might have been. Nevertheless, The Traveler and the Innkeeper is quite effective, and if a bit too simply and bluntly told (as also reflected in the language) is a modest success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 June 2011

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The Traveler and the Innkeeper: 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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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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