I’ve been trying to give my occasional book reviews here some sort of reasonable heft, but again, it’s a busy day, so this will be briefer. An interesting read of late, though, was Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane, a biography of said Central Asian warlord and empire-builder, more formally known as Tīmūr bin Taraghay Barlas. On the one hand, it’s kinda generic — there’s lots to learn from the book but Marozzi’s not always the best stylist, and a little more help on editing would have avoided the occasional moments of repeating himself unnecessarily. On the other hand, it draws together a lot of primary source material into English from a variety of commentators at or near the time, and thus provides as good a recounting of his life as any in English right now. Tamerlane’s reputation as bloodthirsty — or at the least hardly restraining his soldiers from orgies of butchery throughout the Mongol and Islamic world in particular — is reconfirmed, while at the same time noting the hesitancy even then among writers violently opposed to him to fully condemn him as an ogre, noting his intellectual interests, especially in terms of theology. Small comfort to all the dead, it must be said.
But more interesting as well is that the book functions as a travelogue, as Marozzi visited much of the area of his empire to see what remained, what his reputation was. In ways the book is the most spirited on this front, examining the role of Tamerlane as figure in literature and as historicized patriotic icon for the Uzbekistan government in particular, with former Soviet apparatchik turned independent leader Islom Karimov invoking him as a predecessor in his own thoroughly obvious cult of personality, something Marozzi observes with a rightly critical eye. Having seen similar any number of times in my life — whether in the more theoretically benign approaches of American political leaders gravely pointing to past figureheads with an eye on claiming the mantle, or the more cleverly insidious example of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who would love nothing better than to be see as the new Bolivar (and is hardly shy of saying so) — it’s a further example of how Joyce was probably more right than ever about history being the nightmare from which we try and awake.