The misery memoir is the fad of the moment. We seem to have a limitless desire to delve into other people’s hardships. Robert Irwin has gladly shown the way to a more enlightening type of memoir, that of the spiritual quest.
But surely, I hear you say, the spiritual quest is nothing new? Think of Dante, half way along life’s path, looking for the right turning. For Dante, read the young Irwin, still a teenager, up at Merton College to read History and very much in need of direction. The year was 1965. But while others were tuning in and turning on, Irwin, as he confides in his first sentence, ‘wanted to become a Muslim saint’. It isn’t every writer who can get away with such an opening, but then Irwin is no ordinary memorialist. Best known for the rigour of his scholarship on the history and literature of the Middle East, and for challenging Edward Said’s anti-orientalist project, Irwin has also written fiction: The Arabian Nightmare, a dream-mugging mystery set in medieval Cairo, still haunts me more than 20 years after reading it.
Memoirs of a Dervish is haunting for reasons other than Irwin’s dreams, not least for the way it weaves its very disparate strands in a narrative that is occasionally random, but never rambling. It presents the 1960s not through the eyes of a mover or swinger, but from the point of view of an intelligent, lonely and insecure person in search of the Meaning of Life (Irwin’s capitals, not mine). It describes the author’s fascination with, and initiation into, an order of Muslim sufi mystics. And it conveys with power and eloquence the writer’s gratitude for having nourished the spiritual side of life and his disapproval of the way that many Muslims today interpret the Qur’an.
Irwin admits to the problems of recreating events from half a century back. He has diaries and other papers, but there are times when there is either no entry, or he is unable to make sense of what he wrote. There is also much he cannot remember. Happily, the details that have survived are more than enough to tell this tale.
Early on at Oxford, he hung a note by threads from his ceiling: ‘Now you are awake, remember your dreams.’ His diaries are full of them and, whatever else they were trying to say, they reveal the author’s longing to find a pattern to life, to make sense of the random nature of our existence. Religion seemed to offer an answer. The young student spent a night walking barefoot around the college quad reciting ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ The demands of a sufi brotherhood were a natural progression. While his fellow undergraduates were off to ‘the overseas empire of psychedelia’ — Tangier, Formentera and Kathmandu — Irwin spent his holidays in a zawiya, a Muslim monastery on the Algerian coast, a convert both to the religion and the spiritual order.
His Algerian summers, and subsequent spiritual encounters in Europe, were defining moments in his life; yet nothing is romanticised or glazed with sentimentality. The story is too important to pollute in that way, for it is driven by the need of an older man to tell his tale — think of Conrad’s narrator, Charles Marlow, spinning his yarns. Part of its success — and this is a book that succeeds on so many levels — is the fact that the voice of the older Irwin resonates just as strongly as the desires of the younger. The richness of texture and tone that this creates, coupled with the unusual nature of the story and the honesty of a man considering his own mortality and both wanting and needing to bear witness, make Memoirs of a Dervish compelling, fascinating and enriching.