The Plain of Dead Cities: A Syrian Tale
By Bruce McLaren
Cune Press, 2014.
It seems that the catastrophe in Syria, scenes of which have become painfully commonplace, may now be fertile ground for narrative fiction rich in history and corruption. If so, “The Plain of Dead Cities,” by Bruce McLaren, delivers exactly that. This intriguing book appears to be a travelogue through a dystopia reminiscent of Dante’s “Inferno,” terrible, yet at the same time fascinating. Still, the story leaves much to be resolved.
The book succeeds in its portrayal of the well related history of the region, otherwise known as the “cradle of civilization.” The mere mention of ancient Mari and Ebla, Aleppo and Homs and the wonders associated with them ignites the imagination. The 5000-year-old clay tablets of Ebla, cuneiform records of trade and commerce in the Fertile Crescent, as well as the Hashimites, the Assassins, various Islamic sects, the Mongols and the Crusaders, all take the stage. As an archaeologist and historian, the author does an excellent job of bringing to life the mysteries and intrigue of this far-off land.
As a novel, however, The “Plain of Dead Cities” is left searching. Although certainly a gifted writer, Mr. McLaren fails to burden our sensibilities with any plot twists and offers no Captain Queeg’s or Billy Mumphrey’s to guide us through. An Anthony Bourdain-like figure acts as the main character and narrator, but has little identity of his own other than a brooding interest in politics and history, and a thirst for alcohol in a rather unaccommodating part of the world. Meanwhile, the storyline assumes a predictable path as the narrator travels war-ravaged Syria and Iraq, ruminating on life, death and the sorrows of human nature. The actual Dead Cities, to which the title refers, comprise a collection of abandoned Christian settlements in northern Syria. The area was supposedly decimated by spread of Islam in the ninth Century, and slowly but surely the crocodile tears flow.
Reminiscent of “The Last Refuge” by Gregory D. Johnsen, a tome on the conflict in Yemen floated as investigative journalism, “The Plain of Dead Cities” dissolves into the same style of narrative fiction. More than a few works in this genre, no matter how they begin, will certainly suffer this same fate. On the other hand, maybe that’s the underlying message behind Bruce McLaren’s book: that, for many of us, the war in Syria has become a fiction.