Literary awards thrive on controversy, and in 2009 the Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan caused plenty in his homeland when Azazeel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Ostensibly the memoirs of a fifth-century doctor-monk named Hypa, whose scrolls bearing witness to a period of Christian turmoil are uncovered in 1994, its depictions of an aggressive, pagan-purging Bishop Cyril offended some members of the Coptic Church so gravely that they filed lawsuits.
Distance and secularity suggest most English-speaking readers are likely to approach the novel (superbly translated by Jonathan Wright) with slightly less baggage. And, in fact, for all the trouble caused by his expertly researched nods to the internecine struggles within the nascent church, Ziedan seems to be calling for harmony and understanding in religious thought. He merely underlines how ridiculous – and yet dangerous – squabbles between religious sects can be.
All of which makes it easy to forget that Azazeel is actually a novel. Happily, it's underpinned by a believably human and universal tale of a man, racked with doubt and temptation, on a journey to find himself. Still, Hypa's story starts painfully slowly – it's not until the monk sails up the Nile to Alexandria that it gains any forward momentum. There, he meets Octavia and succumbs to "forbidden pleasures" – embarrassingly florid ones, if truth be told – before witnessing the murder by Cyril's followers of the real-life "pagan" mathematician Hypatia.
Hypa leaves Alexandria, heartbroken, and spends the rest of the novel scratching around the Holy Land, perplexed by life, religion, medicine, the devil Azazeel, and women. Sometimes this sense of drift and uncertainty is mirrored in the storytelling – we're told on more than one occasion that "days and months passed tediously". Such is the life of a monk, perhaps.
Yet in the end, Hypa's naivety is a strength: he's a strange, unnerving yet compelling hero-narrator, a blank canvas through which Ziedan vividly explores the time. The writing, too, is unflashy and sincere, neatly matching the monasticism at the book's heart. The prize, or the controversy that followed, might explain why it's sold more than a million copies in Egypt. But it's the lasting image of Hypa, a man continually questioning the meaning of life, that really strikes home.
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