I view things through a narrative lens. I construct my life as story, with myself as chief protagonist. I make my way through life looking for narrative threads, foreshadowing, inciting incidents and dramatic denouement that I can edit into a compelling narrative. Those stories of my life are a mash-up of genres: screwball comedy, action-adventure, kitchen sink drama, or tense political thriller. They are stories of love, friendship and achievement, often in challenging circumstances.
In times of crisis I reach for story as a way of processing my thoughts and feelings about something. Story written by others (whether on the page or on screen) is both my chief comfort and my main source of inspiration. Four years ago I binged on books and drama as a way of finding my way out of a difficult time.
So, last night, in the midst of an emotional storm about the outcome of the UK’s referendum on the EU, I found myself reaching for Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan: a fictionalised retelling of the last days of Moorish Spain. It’s one of my favourite books, and each time I read it I find new layers of meaning and relevance.
Kay’s Al-Rassan is a place of beauty, art and culture. It is not a paradise. It suffers from political instability and is ruled by a powerful elite who are quick to resort to violence and persecution. But in comparison to its neighbours it is a place of religious tolerance that has permitted a diverse culture and civilisation to blossom. It is bordered to the north by three states where the prevailing religion is an increasingly fundamentalist strain of the Jaddite faith. To the south and across the sea are Al-Rassan’s Asharite co-religionists, whose harsh life in the desert breeds an extremist interpretation of faith.
Al-Rassan exists in a fragile bubble between these two cultures. The temperate climate of the peninsula makes life for the Asharites easier, and a civilisation flourishes. That civilisation is enriched by the diverse flows of people through the region, through interchange with the Jaddite kingdoms of the former Esperana to the north, and through its (albeit limited) tolerance for those of the often-persecuted Kindath faith. The tension between the desert to the south and the Jaddites to the north has enabled that place of palaces, poetry and fountains to thrive, but Kay’s Al-Rassan is also a place on the brink of decline and collapse. After the assassination of the last khalif, Al-Rassan has become a place of warring minor kings, increasingly beholden to desert tribes wanting to advance a more extremist agenda. There are threats from the north too: the Jaddite kings of Esperana are pressured to put aside their differences and unite in conquest and crusade. The tragedy of the novel comes from the inevitability of the collapse of the fragile, but beautiful, Al-Rassan as a result of these competing pressures.
The Lions of Al-Rassan examines the geo-politics of the Iberian peninsula at that moment through the lens of a love triangle between Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and two men: Rodrigo Belmonte, a fictionalised El Cid, and Ammar ibn Khairan, a courtier, soldier, poet, assassin and spy. Both represent the pinnacle of their respective cultures and civilisations. Although both are ultimately thrown into conflict against one another as the peninsula descends into war, for a brief, shining moment they find themselves on the same side. Both are sent into exile by the rulers they serve, and find themselves working as mercenaries for King Badir of Ragosa, where Jehane has also found shelter. Belmonte and ibn Khairan form a friendship and partnership of great creativity and ingenuity, which makes their ultimate opposition all the more painful.
One of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan. Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances. Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced. In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.
Kay explores the fate of nations through a single set of relationships, but manages to also represent that story in microcosm during one single night. Ragosa’s Carnival is a night of wine and revelry, but it is also a night of masks that both conceal and reveal, as people use them to make statements about themselves. This Carnival is particularly febrile as Al-Rassan moves on its trajectory towards war. Jehane wanders through the city, considering and discarding options about how to spend her evening. Finally, she is approached by a man in the mask of a lion (Ammar ibn Khairan).
“It is late now, Jehane,” said this man who seemed to have found her in the night after all. “It may even be too late, but shall we walk together a while, you and I?”
That single piece of dialogue encapsulates the whole novel for me, freighted as it is with layers of meaning and significance. It is indeed late in Carnival night when this exchange takes place. But Ammar’s hesitancy also comes from the depth of personal history between him and Jehane. His actions have contributed to the personal tragedy of her family, including the maiming of her beloved father. That may be too much for her to get past, despite their attraction to one another. But Ammar ibn Khairan is also the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan, and in no small part has contributed to the chain of events that is sending the peninsula towards war. With conflict on the horizon there may be no space for love at all.
The choices Jehane makes in The Lions of Al-Rassan are ultimately ones of pragmatic self-interest. As a relatively powerless member of a persecuted minority she chooses the way that offers the potential for greatest safety for herself and her family within some terrifying circumstances. There are no perfect options. Jehane’s choices are made in the full knowledge of the flaws and challenges of the options before her.
Right now, we must all be like Jehane.
Goodreads rating: 5*