How much power does art have? Can an inanimate collection of papers control the destiny of humans, even after its author has perished from the earth? The answer to both questions can be found in the book Samarkand, written by Amin Maalouf in 1988. Samarkand tells the story of a fictional manuscript, an original Rubaiyaat written in the hand of Omar Khayyam, “the unfettered genius of Persia” (Maalouf 159). This Rubaiyaat is the only authentic collection of Khayyam’s poetry, which is almost unrivaled in the history of literature. Samarkand begins with the composition of the manuscript and the life of its author, finishing with an account of Benjamin O. Lesage’s voyage to Persia, made in search of this same manuscript. Throughout the book, people live, love, kill, and endure many hardships for the sake of the Rubaiyaat. But why is this mere bundle of papers so valuable? The Rubaiyaat derives its value from the power its poems exert on their readers and its timeless influence on the hearts and minds of countless generations.
Although it is an inanimate object, the Rubaiyaat is one of the major influences on Omar Khayyam’s life. For many years, the poet pours all his energy into the book, spending hours each day painstakingly composing Rubaiyaat. Khayyam confides that the Rubaiyaat “is the most precious thing I possess… nothing frightens me more than to think that upon my death my manuscript could fall into careless or malevolent hands” (Maalouf 142). Khayyam goes to great lengths to keep his work safe, but in spite of this, his disciple Vartan is murdered by an Assassin who steals the Rubaiyaat. The loss of the manuscript leaves Khayyam a broken man. His life’s work had given him the strength to bear exile from his home in Isfahan, constantly forced to jump around from one city to another. But once the manuscript is gone, Khayyam tells himself that “it is time… to put an end to [his] peregrinations” (Maalouf 144). The manuscript was so valuable, its loss so dearly felt, that Khayyam “would never more try to have control over either his future or that of his poems” (Maalouf 144). Although Khayyam had memorized all his poems and could have written them down again, he decides not to and instead goes back to his birthplace of Nishapur to die. The power of the Rubaiyaat leads Omar Khayyam “across the chessboard of the world,” but when the manuscript slips out of the poet’s grip, Khayyam soon “drops into the casket of the void” (Maalouf 225).
The influence of the Rubaiyaat persists through the centuries; even after seven hundred years, it is able to revolutionize the world and the life of one man: Benjamin Omar Lesage. After the publication of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyaat, millions of people across the Western Hemisphere fall in love. As Lesage recounts, “overnight all the images of the Orient were assembled around the sole name of Khayyam” (Maalouf 159). The Rubaiyaat causes “Omar Societies” to be formed for the purpose of debating the metaphors and hidden meanings of Omar Khayyam’s poetry and almost singlehandedly opens the West’s eyes to the wonders of Persia and the Middle East. The poems even bring Lesage’s parents together. He writes, “I should almost say that it gave birth to me” (Maalouf 158). Only a very few artistic works can claim such influence.
The Rubaiyaat also has power over Persia through the actions of its readers. Mirza Reza, after having just escaped to Constantinople from imprisonment in the dungeons of Persia, decides to travel back to Persia in search of one object: the Rubaiyaat. Mirza Reza “said he wanted to retrieve the Khayyam Manuscript and that nothing else interested him” (Maalouf 177). The promise of uncovering the secrets of the Rubaiyaat also causes Benjamin Lesage to travel to the East. He makes “the trip from Paris to Constantinople, a trip of seventy hours by train across three empires, in order to ask after a manuscript, an old poetry book, a pathetic bundle of papers in a tumultuous Orient” (Maalouf 171).
However, this voyage, provoked by Lesage’s fascination with the manuscript, has effects that are anything but pathetic. Lesage carries a letter written by Jamal al-Din in Constantinople to Mirza Reza in Tehran. This letter introduces Lesage, compels Reza to finally find the manuscript, and provokes Mirza Reza to commit a historic act. When Reza assassinates the Shah of Persia only a few days later, both the Manuscript of Khayyam and the letter from Jamal al-Din are found in his possession. It is impossible to tell precisely what influence the Rubaiyaat had on this murder, but it is clear at least that Mirza Reza would never have come back to Persia, and the Shah would not have been assassinated, without the Rubaiyaat’s presence. Lesage later plays an instrumental role in the Persian Constitutional Revolution and the 1908 Siege of Tabriz (“History of Iran.”), which, again, would not have occurred if Lesage had not had such an “intense desire to be able to leaf through [the Rubaiyaat] one day and to study its contents closely” (Maalouf 175). Power need not be blatant and direct. Often it is a guiding force, as is the case here.
What makes great poetry valuable? Perhaps the answer is that it contains timeless meanings. Its words captivate and shed light upon the lives of people in different countries, in different centuries. The Rubaiyaat takes hold of the life and heart of its author, Omar Khayyam, and then, that of Benjamin Lesage. As Lesage says, “For years, ever since I learnt that this book existed, I have lived for nothing else. It has led me from adventure to adventure, its world has become mine, and its guardian my beloved” (Maalouf 269). It is the influence, the power, of great literature that makes it valuable. Poems that can provoke any emotion in their reader, that can lead them to the ends of the earth, are valuable. Books that stay relevant, like both the Rubaiyaat and Shakespeare’s works, are valuable. As Khayyam wrote:
A drop of water fell into the sea.
A speck of dust came floating down to earth.
What signifies your passage through this world?
A tiny gnat appears – and disappears. (Maalouf 146)
Humans live and then die. Mountains rise and then fall. The world is changed by time.
But the rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam persist.
Maalouf, Amin, and Russell Harris. Samarkand: A Novel. New York: Interlink Books, 2004. Print.
“History of Iran.” History of Iran: Constitutional Revolution, https://www.iranchamber.com/history/constitutional_revolution/constitutional_revolution.php.