I suspect “The Book Smugglers of TImbuktu” started out as an attempt to lionise the heroic efforts of a few humble souls in Timbuktu, lead by a librarian (the humblest of humble professions), who outwit Al Qaeda oppressors and save the precious literary heritage of Timbuktu and Africa and, of course, the World, but somewhere along the way the author, Charlie English, caught the whiff of artifice and found himself faced with a dilemma. Was the public version of the story legit, or a beat-up aimed at drawing money from guilt ridden donors, or a bit of both? He basically pumps for the latter, but without certainty or outrage.
The book has two narratives which line up in the myth busting finale, the history of the European fascination with and the search for the legendary town of Timbuktu in Mali, and the account of the reputed spiriting of hundreds of thousands of historical documents from under the noses of the Al Qaeda besiegers in Timbuktu earlier this decade. Ultimately I found the historical narrative of the poorly organised and disastrous attempts to reach the fabled city more engrossing. When eventually they reached their Atlantis they were overwhelmed with indifference, for naturally it could never have lived up to the mythical preconceptions and, surprise, surprise, turned out to be a trade town with nothing much to distinguish itself, except for its prized cache of literature.
Charlie English keeps the story moving in a lively journalist manner, a sort of Peter Ackroyd in first gear, and mostly lets the twin narratives tell themselves. It certainly opened my eyes to Mali and Timbuktu, and I won’t be hopping on a flight any time soon. He admits towards the end the book has become less about history and more about historiography as he juggles multitudes of contradictory sources and very few hard facts in both of the text’s streams.
I certainly wouldn’t say it was a book I couldn’t put down, I did for extended periods of time, but I did keep picking it up again… and again.