2020/12/24

Five books: historical fiction

By historical fiction, here I don't just mean novels that are set in the past, but more specifically, accounts of actual events and people, but that are not strictly historical. While the main story is real, the author takes the liberty of imagining the details like thoughts, conversations, relationships, even some side characters. These details of course can't be known for sure but imagining them allows us to access a deeper truth. Here are some of my favorites in the genre:

  • Mémoires d'Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. A brilliant imagining of the inner thoughts of the great Roman emperor. I read it a pretty young age, having found it while browsing the bookshelf out of sheer boredom. At the time I didn't really read this kind of stuff but to my surprise I ended up completely engrossed.  Much later in life, I came to appreciate stoic tradition, which makes me appreciate it even more in hindsight.
  • Léon l'Africain by Amin Maalouf.  Imaginary "auto-biography" of Ibn Battuta aka Leo Africanus. A great explorer who traveled a huge part of the Africa, Europe, and Asia, and had many incredible adventures. Everyone learns about Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus etc. But this guy should really be covered more.
  • Samarcande by Amin Maalouf. Another fantastic book by Maalouf, describes the life and times of Omar Khayyam, a great poet of the middle ages.  The city of Samarkand still exists, in present day Uzbekistan. It's fascinating to think that this place,  which we think of as so remote nowadays, was once a major world city, the equivalent of Paris or New York today.
  • Burr by Gore Vidal. The story of Aaron Burr, the second vice-president of the US, famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I read this a long time ago, before the current Hamilton craze, and never formally studied American history in school, so  knowing more about Burr than Hamilton gives me an unusual perspective.  Very vivid description of life in the early 19th century New York. Every time I pass by  Jumel Mansion, I remember this book.
  • Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Imagine real life in the times of Buddha, how people lived and what they thought. Very wise book, historical, spiritual, took me a while to appreciate this gem.


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