Paul Engles: why we wanted to publish THE PRESIDENT'S GARDENS
Paul Engles explains what makes The President's Gardens so special.
"I first heard about this book in 2013, when it was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The title and the premise – the lives of three friends in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – caught my attention. I got in touch with Marcia Lynx Qualey – “a court poet, ghost writer and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures” – to ask her about it, but in the event, it did not make the shortlist and my interest cooled.
Fast forward to December 2015, when Marcia sent me the full novel in an English translation by Luke Leafgren, an Assistant Dean at Harvard College who had previously translated one of Al-Ramli’s novels. When I started reading it, I was instantly hooked. I took it on holiday to Sri Lanka, and I read it on the plane, on Mirissa beach and in the gem market in Beruwala. It was at once one of the saddest, most beautiful and most heart-warming books I have ever read.
The President’s Gardens is quite unusual in the scheme of Iraqi literature because it deals with such a large sweep of the country’s recent history. It is a multifaceted and multi-generational story that begins in 1948 and ends in 2006. It is inspired by true events, and by the author’s past life as a tank commander in the Iraqi army.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is Al-Ramli’s literary hero, and Gabo’s influence can be discerned throughout The President’s Gardens, an epic story about a whole nation told through characters from a small village. The three main protagonists, Ibrahim the Fated, Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, are expertly realised, as are the stories and myths that define their world.
But it is not just the epic scope and believable, likeable characters that make The President’s Gardens such a pleasure to read. Perhaps the key to this novel’s appeal is that it is suffused with tenderness and human decency, and that it demonstrates that these qualities can still survive and flourish in a war-torn country where torture, murder and oppression are the facts of everyday life.
It has been my great pleasure to have published this novel and to have had the chance to work with both Muhsin and Luke, who are both as humble as they are talented. The positive response from readers and reviewers has been very gratifying – it has had rave reviews in the U.K., the U.A.E., Singapore, Australia, Pakistan and Ireland (Muhsin’s website catalogues in detail all the reactions from around the world: http://muhsinalramli.blogspot.co.uk/)."
Paul Engles is an Editor at MacLehose Press and, until very recently, a secret weapon of the Hachette Hawks Softball Team.