History in pieces

George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher and writer, had an interesting view of history. He described it as ‘a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.’ It was an admittedly extreme reaction, but the sentiment that prompted it is what came to this reader’s mind a few pages into Sam Djang’s exhaustive look at the life of that divisive historical figure, Genghis Khan.

Tourists walk past a sand sculpture of Genghis Khan at Xiangshawan, also called Resonant Sand Bay in northern China, in July 2007. Pic/Getty Images

Divisive is an apt word, considering the only thing most biographers of the founder of the Mongol Empire agree to do is disagree. The Mongols, naturally, revere him. The Chinese, naturally, do not. The Iranians hold him responsible for the death of millions, while others credit him with boosting trade between Asia and the West.

According to the journalist Thomas Craughwell — author of The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World — the Mongols were cruel and fierce, but never mindless. According to Jack Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he was a progressive leader who was surprisingly far ahead of his European and Asian contemporaries as far as human rights were concerned.

Into this muddied zone steps Sam Djang, posing the question: ‘How could there be such vast and negative misconceptions about this man?’ His response: ‘One explanation is that most of his recorded history was probably written by his enemies.’ It’s an astonishingly naïve comment to make and the book promptly nosedives from that point on.

Is it a novel or a biography? If promoted as the latter, what is one to make of passages such as this: ‘Genghis saw Juchi in his dream. He looked very peaceful. Juchi was the one whom he had spent most of his time with on the battlefield, more than any other son. Genghis loved him very much. Juchi did not say anything.’ Djang has clearly invested a lot of time in research, but it is his complete inability to excite the reader that lets him down. In his hands, the life of Genghis Khan plods from chapter to chapter, inexplicably jumps back and forth, forces fact to conform to the strictures of dialogue and, in the process, ruins what ought to have been a cracker of
a story.

Genghis Khan: The World Conqueror
Sam Djang
Rs 495, Rupa Books 

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