cover image The Gardens of Light

The Gardens of Light

Amin Maalouf. Interlink Publishing Group, $25 (256pp) ISBN 978-1-56656-247-8

An absorbing historical novel and a compelling parable for our time, Lebanese writer Maalouf's (Samarkand) exotic tale recreates the life of Mani (216-274 C.E.), the Persian mystic who founded the Manichaean religion and was eventually executed on the grounds of heresy. Forced, from the age of five to his mid-20s, to stay among the sadistic white-clad Brethren of his father's repressive religious community, the Parthian prophet begins to develop his own system of belief. Synthesizing the teachings of Jesus, Buddha and Zoroaster, Mani emphasizes tolerance and pacifism, not--as Western historians often claim--a reductive good vs. evil code., After he escapes, Mani sails to India, wins many converts and returns home to become protege and counsel to open-minded Persian King Shapur I. Shapur's beset with warmongering Zoroastrian priests who itch to impose fire worship on the whole empire. But it is his treacherous son's succession to the throne that sounds Mani's death knell. Though court intrigue sometimes stalls this earnest tale, Mani's message resounds across the centuries. Maalouf (who won France's 1993 Prix Goncourt for his novel The Rock of Tanios) imaginatively fleshes out the essence of Mani's life from scant biographical clues, rendering a portrait of a martyred visionary whose tale has gone largely untold. (Feb.)