Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan
Set in the fifth century in Egypt and Syria, the Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan’s novel is narrated by a humble and tormented doctor monk, Hypa, who is on a pilgrimage of self-discovery and witnesses some of the horrors of the age. A number of wars are going on. One is between Christianity and paganism, in which barbaric things are done in the name of the former, such as the brutal murder of Hypatia the mathematician, to which a horrified Hypa bears witness. Another is within Christianity itself, centring on the theological dispute about whether Mary is the mother of God or only the mother of Jesus the man. This dispute comes across as really a power struggle. In both conflicts, Cyril of Alexandria is portrayed as a fanatical rabble-rouser. But the most interesting war (and the one with which most readers will identify) is within Hypa himself as he struggles with temptation and his religious aspirations. Ziedan creates a completely believable setting in which to locate his Everyman’s constant questioning about the meaning of life.