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.