The Polygamist, by William Irvine, Reviewed.


A very human story of one man’s relentless search for a way of life that will suit his view of what a man’s life should be. Culture, religion, philosophy and morality all impact on the story, which has a Muslim protagonist, Omar, living in India, where his beliefs are in the minority.

There are lessons here for the non-Muslim, explanations of the peculiar (to most Western minds) attitude to women, and insights into the equally odd (again to most Western minds) approach to marriage.

Reading this book as an Englishman, raised in the Christian tradition, which I long ago rejected, I sometimes struggled to form empathy with the protagonist’s spiritual and practical conundrums resulting from his choice of lifestyle.

Making a deliberate decision to marry a number of women, more or less simultaneously, as an antidote to his previous unsatisfactory sexually promiscuous lifestyle, places him in situations he’s failed to expect.

The story is well told, with narrative attempts to explain the reasons why this man does what he does. In the process, the reader is informed about the values and priorities ruling the Islamic way of being. It’s alien to the Christian mind and I was conscious throughout of filtering events and attitudes through a personal history of both early church teaching and a current agnostic standpoint. As a result, I was rarely sympathetic to issues that caused Omar such soul-searching. To me, the answers were relatively straightforward. But I understand my approach to the ethics and morality of his lifestyle choice are entirely different. I tried, therefore to enter the mind-set of the protagonist. It made reading the book a slightly schizophrenic experience.

The character of Omar, as well as those of the women and other men he mingles with, is fully developed. Here is a man with a very specific view of the world and his place in it. That he’s from a wealthy Saudi Arabian family overlays the narrative with the inevitable selfishness displayed by such easily acquired riches. But it also adds a layer of the ‘exotic’ to the character.

For many people, he could so easily have been portrayed as a bad man with a poor moral sense attempting to kid himself he was simply living according to his culture and upbringing. But the author wraps the personality in layers of awareness and speculation that render him a much more interesting and, to some extent, even admirable man.

He’s determined to live his life in accordance with his own honest assessment of his sexuality and inability to commit to a single relationship for any length of time. His solution makes some sense within the context of his background and cultural heritage.

The women in his life are drawn with equal depth and concern for their humanity. Although he often attempts to manipulate them to his own ends, they are strong enough to reverse this trend and control him in ways he least expects.

There are a number of events outside the main topic of polygamous marriage that take Omar into situations the author has devised to demonstrate various social woes of the world. These fit well into the story and form a sort of illuminated parallel existence that’s both separate from and inevitably associated with his lifestyle choice.

Interestingly, although there are, almost inevitably since this is a book about the sexuality of a man with a big appetite for amorous encounters with women, detailed explanations of his physical engagement with his various partners, I found nothing erotic here. That may, of course, say more about me than about the nature of the depiction, who knows?

I enjoyed the philosophical debates, the short passages of cultural education, the glimpses into lives of people I’m unlikely to ever encounter in my own life, and the pictures the author paints of the various locations described in the book.

For me, the fact that Omar is from a wealthy background reduced my ability to take his problems as seriously as I might’ve had he had more of a struggle with everyday living. But, that aspect aside, I found the immersion into an entirely new culture in a land I’ve never visited to be instructive and informative.

This is a complex book filled with engaging characters, set in locations of real interest. The story, unfolding via many challenges, varies its pace to suit the action.

All in all, I found this an engaging tale that informed me without in any way altering my attitude to certain aspects of the issues depicted. In fact, in many instances it confirmed what were previously no more than suspicions about Muslim attitudes and priorities. Fortunately, for an agnostic, the religious aspect was heavily overlain with the cultural background, so I never felt I was being preached to. An enjoyable tale, which entertained whilst it informed and educated.

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