Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Combining touches of magical realism with the stark reality of life in a war zone, Michael Whitehead delivers a memorable literary novel with The Lion of Babylon.
Thousands of years of religious and cultural conflict provide the backdrop for this parable set in the city of Al Hilla, one hundred kilometers south of Baghdad. A mood of impenetrable mystery hangs over the story as thick as the dust and heat ever-present in the deserts of Iraq.
The Lion of Babylon is not another adventure tale glamorizing war. Nor is it a barely disguised protest against the horror of pointless bloodshed. The supernatural and literary elements create a novel closer to Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato than Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.
The novel probes the hearts of men, women, and children in the aftermath of the U. S. invasion of Iraq. We meet a gifted orphan, a great Sheik still able to laugh after imprisonment and torture, the ordinary civilian-turned-solider confronting fear, and military leaders who hold the lives of others in their hands. These people come together to build a future for this troubled land, all while trying to figure out what the future holds for them personally—if they survive the conflict.
Told through alternating viewpoints, the story allows readers to see the region’s problems through many perspectives. Haidar, an Iraqi orphan, longs to know a simple thing: where his murdered parents are buried. But his grandmother is the only one who will even allow mention of his parents. He is an outsider in what remains of his family, a boy whose emotional wounds immediately capture our sympathy. Haidar hangs out in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon near a 2,500 year old damaged statue of a lion. Often when in the lion’s vicinity, the boy receives prophecies. His grandmother understands because she, too, has had visions. The rest of the family rejects him as weird; they dismiss him as being just like his father, who was killed by Saddam.
Another pivotal character is Colonel Nate Rogers, a middle-aged Army Reservist who, like the others in his unit, is ripped from his family and civilian career when he is called to serve. Rogers finds it difficult to make decisions when the wrong one could lead to his own and others’ death. The colonel and his motley crew are tasked with winning an influential Sheik’s support for the Coalition. They also are supposed to placate a British Foreign Service representative who insists that the security of the British compound be hardened. Unfortunately, getting anything accomplished in Iraq proves difficult.
Also central to the tale is Sergeant Dan Murphy, the Mr. Fix-It of the unit whose can-do attitude and devotion illustrate all that is finest in mankind. Murphy is painted as a Christ figure, one who bridges the gulf between cultures, one who places others’ wellbeing over his own. The orphan Haidar befriends Murphy and teaches him how to receive visions from the Lion.
Major Angela Moreno and Lieutenant Sandy Beck have personal stories that enrich the novel and help readers fully understand the sacrifices our soldiers make and the changes their lives undergo because of their service. Rounding out the unit are Frank Reynolds, a lawyer before he was called up, and Harold Miller, a deeply caring and religious man who tries to keep others on the right path. Miller says when he goes home he will tell his fellow Americans that the Iraqis are deeply religious people a lot like themselves: “They loved their God. They loved their families. They just wanted to be free to work and live their life.”
One of the novel’s merits is that it can be appreciated on a deeper level than the action taking place in the present. The arrival of American, English, Polish, and Ukrainian soldiers in Iraq recalls the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which most scholars believe was in Babylon. The very nature of the coalition—each partner struggling to bridge the gap caused by their different cultures, expectations, fears, and languages—mimics the chaos described in the bible.
Whitehead’s characters offer intelligent insights into the Shia/Sunni conflict, but acknowledge that, in the end, Iraqis will have to solve their problems themselves. The Sheik admits his country has little practice with democracy, so Americans will need to be patient.
The gritty details of the terrain and setting feel totally authentic, no surprise since Whitehead spent time in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, a tour of duty he describes in his 2006 memoir, Messages from Babylon. Whitehead lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife of 37 years, and works as an emergency manager and American Red Cross volunteer. He retired from the Army Reserve in 2005 after thirty years of service.