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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Buried Book by David Damrosch

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgameshis the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh -- what is known of its creation, its loss when Nineveh fell, and its rediscovery in the nineteenth century.  As intriguing as this story is, it is rather short, so Damrosch fills out his narrative by offering us a lot of context.  We learn about the scholars who decyphered cuneiform and translated the Gilgamesh tablets, the archeologists who uncovered Nineveh and its ruined library, the state of British archeology in the late 1800s (racist, classist, and ridiculously petty), the Assyrian kings who founded Nineveh and put together the great library of cuneiform tablets, the workings of the Assyrian Empire (surprisingly modern in its politics and concerns), and finally the earliest Sumerian and Akkadian versions of the Gilgamesh stories.  Damrosch, a comparative literature professor, adds an analysis of the epic itself for good measure (helpful, since it's been years since I read it), along with its influence on modern works.

The result is a fascinating synthesis of history, culture, archeology, literature, and symbolism.  Where Damrosch falters is in the last section, where he discusses Saddam Hussein's fascination with Gilgamesh and his literary pretensions.  I don't think the connection is strong enough to be particularly interesting, and Damrosch's handling of it doesn't do much to address the remarkable lack of self-awareness Hussein must have had, given the ideals he praised in his writings and his actual behavior. I'm the last person to deny that evil dictators can be complex and full of contradictions, but that was not really discussed in Damrosch's analysis -- whether because he did not go in depth enough, or whether because the connection to Gilgamesh was ultimately too thin to make it belong in this book, I'm not sure.

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