THE BIBLE OF CLAY
By: Julia Navarro (translated by Andrew Hurley)
Bantam Dell: New York
Julia Navarro, a Spanish journalist and political
analyst by trade, has spun a fascinating and complex tale of intrigue in
this, her second international bestseller, as conspiracies evolve out of
conspiracies, and a decades-long lust for vengeance leads to the sad
realization that redemption is not always possible.
The story opens with Clara Tannenberg, a neophyte
archaeologist and granddaughter of Alfred Tannenberg, a shadowy figure
involved in the global trade of antiquities—and a confidante of Saddam
Hussein—making an astounding announcement to a stunned audience of scholars
at a Rome archaeological conference. She tells them that her grandfather
had, at an Iraqi dig site some sixty years earlier, unearthed clay tablets
which hinted strongly that the patriarch Abraham had dictated to a scribe
named Shamas the Genesis account of creation—some 1,000 years before
scholars generally accepted its being written down as part of the Mosaic
books of the Torah. She pleads for support to excavate the rest of the
tablets—the eponymous Bible of Clay—which, she is certain she has located.
She needs to do this immediately for two reasons: to fulfill the dreams of
her grandfather to locate the Bible of Clay before he dies and to do so
before the United States unleashes its war machine against Saddam’s regime
and its feared weapons of mass destruction.
Against this back drop of immanent war, Clara’s plea
falls, for the most part, on the deaf ears of the archaeological
establishment, but Yves Picot, an archaeologist with a reputation for being
something of a renegade, is intrigued by Clara’s tale and the potential
–however slight it might be—for archaeological fame and glory, and agrees to
put together an excavation crew and a excavation plan of action. But the
work must be completed and the Bible of Clay—if it exists at all—must be
excavated before the US war planes fly and the overwhelming military power
of the United States sweeps into Iraq.
Work begins near the area known in ancient times as Ur
of the Chaldees—the ancestral home of Abraham—with a somewhat motley crew,
which includes, unbeknownst to Yves and Clara, agents of Saddam’s regime, an
agent of an international ring of antiquities smugglers and an assassin who
has been hired to kill Clara and her grandfather.
Through a series of flashback chapters, we are given
the back story of Abraham’s telling of the creation story to Shamas as he
followed God’s command to migrate from Ur to Canaan—present day Palestine
and Israel, and the tale of Alfred Tannenberg’s discovery of the
introductory tablets to the Bible of Clay as a student in the early days of
Nazi Germany and subsequently as a monstrous butcher at one of Hitler’s
concentration camps. The Nazi era flashbacks also introduce us to the four
lost souls who survived Tannenberg’s atrocities and who spend their
remaining years plotting their revenge against him.
The novel builds in tension as the various
players—conspirators and archaeologists alike—struggle to accomplish their
missions before the American invasion begins.
This is a long novel—some 700 pages in its paperback
edition—but well worth the commitment of time required to read it. Some of
the major characters are not as fully developed as one might wish, but
Navarro does often succeed in capturing the ambivalent nature of most of
humankind. Alfred Tannenberg is pure, unmitigated evil—one of the most
loathsome creatures I have run across in recent fiction—but the other major
characters occupy a gray netherworld between good and evil, between the
angels and demons.
Three trowels for this often thought-provoking novel of
archaeology and revenge.
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