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Alexander - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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Author: Valerio Massimo Manfredi / Format: Paperback / Genre: Historical Fiction /Title: Alexander / ISBN 13: 9780330399883 / ISBN 10: 0330399883 / 400 Pages / Book is published 2002-04-05 by Pan Books / Alternative title: Alexander: Ends of the Earth / Alternative ISBN 10: 0330492020

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      28.01.2010 12:39
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      probably the best historical trilogy published

      The third and final part of the Alexander Trilogy sees the great Macedonian king conquer the whole of the Persian Empire, from Syria, through Mesopotamia and Babylonia, Persis itself and all the way to India - up into the Himalayas and down to the mouth of the Indus.

      This review is further to my reviews of the previous two novels and so I will refrain from repeating myself regarding things like style and characterisation which are consistent throughout.

      The story covers a period of about nine years, and these are years so eventful that, as one of Alexander's companions notes, "every month feels like a year." This book is therefore the longest of the three, with my paperback edition 570 pages. (The first and second instalments are 430 and 480 respectively. This makes for a grand total of 1480 pages! No mean feat, I'm sure you'll agree.)

      Manfredi uses a number of techniques to deal with this volume of action, most obviously selecting a few key moments in the story of Alexander and expanding on those while filling the times between with a few workmanlike lines of summary. Absolutely necessary, clearly. He also refrains from detailing any of the hundreds of sieges that took place during this period, and he can do this because he dedicated a very large proportion of the second book to the siege of Tyre and so we the reader have no need of more descriptions of similar though lesser events. And to read it would be tedious in the extreme.

      Similarly, there were dozens or even hundreds of small battles or skirmishes fought along the way and these are simply referred to in passing other than three battles that we witness directly, namely the crucial Battle of Gaugamela, the huge scuffle at the Persian Gates, and a brief but bloody fight with the Scythians north of the Jaxartes River (the northern limit of both the Persian and ultimately Alexander's Empire).

      Surprisingly, what we don't see first hand is the brutal and extremely bloody Battle of the Hydaspes which was fought against the Indian King Porus up in the Punjab. Instead, the details of this battle and almost all of the entire Indian expedition is related by a letter from Alexander's companion and general, Ptolemy (later ruler of Egypt and founder of the dynasty that was to end with Cleopatra nearly 300 years later) to the great Aristotle. It's a lovely piece of writing and a neat trick; surmising years of hardships in just a few pages and is one of the best sections of the whole trilogy and moves us on to the very final section.

      Incidentally, the character of Aristotle made his first appearance at the start of the first book tutoring Alexander and his presence has continued throughout the rest of the trilogy in short passages as he investigates the truth behind the assassination of King Phillip II, travelling here and there in Greece when he can, talking to witnesses and using his legendary powers of reason to come up with the answer to this now two-thousand-year-old mystery. Disappointingly, and after all that build-up, the historian Manfredi refuses to come down from the fence and ends up concluding something like, 'Possibly this but dunno'.

      I think most people know the story of the conquests of Alexander the Great but perhaps not the conclusion of his adventure so I'll refrain from detailing it here and spoiling the ending. Suffice to say that Alexander does begin to find that there are limits to what he can achieve through personal force of will alone.

      There's no doubt that Alexander the Great was one of the biggest murderers in history. Much like Genghis Khan over a thousand years later, his armies swept away kingdoms almost without pause, killing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, women and children in a despicable quest for glory and riches. Having said that, he was obviously a product of his times and to judge him by our standards is to miss the point that his actions, however we judge them, changed the course of world history. A lot of Western historians write that he brought Hellenistic culture to the East, (and the implication is that this is some sort of justification for the slaughter, as though Greek trumps Persian or Indian, and of course that's a natural bias but still not accurate) and there is no doubt that this led to huge advances in communication and trade between East and West, as well as fundamentally altering the social structures and genetics of hugely diverse peoples across Central Asia.

      More than this, his Companions, who became the Diadochi, or Successors, continued the legacy of Greek culture across Central Asia and Egypt and indeed, continued fighting desperate wars, this time against each other, for generations to come. It never ceases to astound me that these men, who had been close friends and companions almost from birth - educated together, living and fighting together, some even living in exile together - ended up as bitter enemies. It makes you wonder what stress and madness was experienced after so many endless years of brutal campaigning. It's a story I'd love to read, and is perhaps one even more fascinating than that of Alexander himself. Well, maybe.

      He must have been a truly extraordinary man to have achieved the things he did. The story of his life is like something out of legend, and indeed, is so mixed up with his own archetype that it is no longer possible to fully separate fact from fiction. Whatever the truth of it is, he is beyond doubt one of the most fascinating and complex individuals to have ever lived (that we know about) and this trilogy makes a heroic attempt to explore the brilliant, terrifying, maniacal mind of a man who really was Great.

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