The Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro, 512 pages, Bantam (March 25, 2008)
Last month, Israeli archaeologists found 3000 year old ceramic shards near a hilltop in Jerusalem. It had five lines of characters, believed to be the oldest Hebrew inscriptions ever found. Imagine if some tablets were found, similar to the one discovered in Jerusalem, in which Genesis as told by Abraham is written. Such a discovery proving the existence of a person called Abraham would be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of this century.
An archaeological expedition in search for this ‘Bible of Clay’ is the main thread of Julia Navarro’s thriller. Finding this artifact is his life’s mission for the dauntless Alfred Tannenberg, a wealthy resident of Baghdad who discovered two tablets when he was young. He wants his grand daughter, Clara, an unknown archaeologist to discover the rest before he dies so that she gains respectability in the academic circles.
Clara and her family can get anything done in Iraq, since her husband Ahmed is well connected with Saddam’s inner circle. While they have money and power, what they lack is archaeological expertise. For that they rope in a French archaeologist and his team. Time is at a premium since there are rumors that the Americans might invade Iraq.
Besides the time pressure what would a thriller do if there are no bad guys plotting to kill the lead characters? There are in fact two teams tracking them, one with the goal of killing the Tannenbergs and the other to steal the tablets.
Alfred Tannenberg’s history and the motivation for the people out to eliminate him are explained in another thread which takes place during WWII. This structure of two threads in two different period of time was seen in The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus where one set of events happened during the time of the Council of Nicea while the other happened after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Navarro takes it up one more level. There is a third thread about Abraham’s journey to Caanan and how he narrates Genesis to the scribe Shamas, who inscribes them into clay tablets. Shamas does not complete the journey to the promised land, but turns back and goes to Ur, which is where Clara is digging for them.
With such a structure which combines the ancient past with the present,you would expect a tight thriller and it does deliver the goods to a certain extent. It combines the recent past and the ancient past with contemporary events like the Iraqi invasion and the subsequent looting of the Baghdad museums to make it an captivating tale.
But it falters on few points which make the book a drag sometimes. First, there are a large number of characters which make it resemble a Robert Altman film. There are various groups with vested interests competing for things and each of those groups have a few people. Some of those characters have minor roles and probably could have been collapsed into one composite character.
The second one is the lack of attention to details. When you write, “the museum administrators had prepared a gallery with every security measure known to man”, it is not show but tell. There is much detail about the dig in Iraq and WWII era, but when it comes to ancient Iraq during the time of Abraham, it pales in comparison to the research of Jason Goodwin or Robert Silverberg.
Towards the end the author is in a rush to finish the book that it just runs all over the place to the point of being illogical. As Americans start bombing Baghdad on March 20 th, Clara is hiding in a hotel frequented by foreign journalists. Meanwhile there is a killer in the hotel looking for her. In the next chapter it is May 1st and the killer is still in the hotel looking for her.
Usually the protagonists of such novels are people who are people whom you like, but in this one the protagonists and antagonists differ on how ruthless they are to attain their goals. At the end you are not rooting for anyone, but hating most of them. With fewer characters and better editing, this could have become an even better thriller.