The Book of the Alchemist

Written by Adam Williams
Review by Edward James

Imagine the Arabian Nights transposed to the Spanish Civil War, or rather the narrator transposed to Andalusia in 1938, for like Scheherazade the narrator of The Book of the Alchemist is telling stories of long ago. Also, like Scheherazade, the narrator is a prisoner telling the stories in a bid to survive.

This then is a story within a story, each with its own narrator, switching alternately from the 20th and the 11th century. The 20th-century framework concerns a Republican politician held hostage by a band of Communist guerrillas besieged in a cathedral by the Francoist army. He discovers an Arab manuscript in the crypt which narrates the adventures of three men, a Moslem, a Christian and a Jew, in Mediaeval Andalusia and in reading the stories to his fellow prisoners he finds the means to escape.

This is also a moral tale, contrasting the enlightened tolerance of Arab Spain with the murderous bigotry of the 1930s. Both the Arab story and the Civil War story in which it is embedded are ultimately tragedies, although in both tales enough of the protagonists survive to keep the flame of hope alive.

The Arab story takes up the larger part of the book, told from the viewpoint of a small Moorish principality assailed by both Christian crusaders and Berber fanatics. It has all the feel of court, military and harem life that pervades the Arabian Nights, and as with Scheherazade we have to stretch our credulity at times. If you enjoyed the Arabian Nights you should enjoy this.