This novel, published in 1988 is one of the most renowned books by Maalouf and for sure it is worth of all the praising it has received. This tale set us in the 11th century, meeting a young Omar JayyŠm, a Persian wise man that we all know or have heard of in as many fields as mathematics, philosophy, astrology, physics and of course literature. As soon we are introduced to Jayyam's character we can see the origins and birth of his famous poem Rubba'iyat. Along with the historical background, Maalouf sparkles his prose with excerpts of Jayyam's poems that provides the text with a very powerful and melodic cadence.
The first half of the book is centered along three figures that were friends and one of the most important triumvirate from the Islamic world history: Nizam el-Molk who was the Persian vizier for Turkish Sultan Malik Sha; Hassan Sabah, a very wise and cruel man who becomes the founder of the Ismaeli community that interpreted Islam in a different way and also the main figure behind the Hashshashin group (explaining that this word can be the origin of the Spanish word Asesino, or Assasin in english, due to the extreme nature of violence incarnated in the clan); of course missing there is Jayyam, an extraordinary man that never wants to get involved in politics or anything related but can't avoid it since everybody turns to him to his advise.
It is a time where ancient Persia is dominated by the Seljuq Empire but at the same time there are cities like Samarkand that is still an independent city.
The city is of course one of the main characters along the trio already mentioned, always present in all actions, mindsets and specially in the creation of the famous and historic Jayyam's book. With the city as an eternal presence Maalouf narrates the tribulations of the three heroes through all his life and the path each one took folliwing his ideals.
This is the most beatifully narrated part consisting of two of the four books that complete the novel. After we see the ending of these three symbological and magical figures and their death we are turned to the voice telling the story, an American man named Benjamin O. Lessage who at the end of the XIX century becomes interested in the Rubba'iyat and after his uncle tells him the original version written by Jayyam still exists he enrolls in a quest to find the book. The journey takes him to Constantinople, France and Persia twice, where he is the protagonist of a civil war in Tabriz, a Persian city where a revolt strikes against the Shah in order to create in Persia a democratic state with a constitution. In this part we realise what happened with those early attempts for democracy in middle east and why Russia, France and the UK are enormous barriers that does not allow this situation to concrete.
Within the narration Maaloufs' voice deals with present problems such as immigration, the look of the Islamic world from the west and how this part of the world has never really helped to incorporate a now archaic part of the globe to modernity. Fanaticism is explained in a very clear view of all of us western readers that we barely know its origins and how it developed until our days.
A very illustrative book as all Maalouf's books are in order to comprehend and advance towards a solution and a real encounter between our cultures.