This is a love story. Or so claims Omar, the teller of this tale. Notwithstanding the mention of dreams, one might object to invoking assassination and commerce in the title of a romance. The Many Assassinations of Samir the Seller of Dreams is, nevertheless, a love story of sorts. Not in the way one might expect. But much about Daniel Nayeri’s difficult-to-class novel betrayed my expectations.
Prompted by the title, I anticipated a picaresque tale á la The Music Man; as narrator, an eleventh-century Harold Hill peddling a medieval brand of positive thinking along the Silk Road. Instead, the story opens with the orphan Omar’s description of “the first time [I] was stoned to death.” He goes on to describe how the eponymous Samir buys and thus rescues him from a mob of outraged monks.
My second assumption, based on the stone-throwing clerical pursuers, was to class Omar with such literary truants as Huck Finn or the Artful Dodger. The space of a few pages was required to adjust my thinking and realize the self-assured youth is instead a strict adherent to rules and no friend of thieves.
It is Omar who describes Samir as an “unserious man, a liar, and a thief.” Such a claim holds justice. Samir does fool people. And sometimes he plays the fool. But not exclusively in the double-dealing, fast-talking manner to be expected of a hard bargainer. In the end, the story calls into question who is the fool and who is fooled, with the reader thrown into the lot.
More often than not, Samir’s penchant for shaping the truth to fit the need of the moment works to the benefit of his companions rather than himself. Keen observation—which seems to elude Omar—reveals that Samir’s machinations conceal not a con but a covert benefactor, in the manner of one who aims to maintain ignorance between his right hand and his left.
Omar, by coming in company with Samir, joins up with a caravan on its way from Turfan to Kashgar, whence Samir plans to continue on to Samarkand. The journey and the caravaneers, whom Samir regards as family, provide lively color and vivid historical interest. Their numbers include a decrepit donkey named after a legendary Persian hero; a bird merchant with deadly halitosis who carts his merchandise about in a mountain of cages; and a blacksmith who possesses little skill at smithing and espouses the elusive doctrine of accidentalism.
In Omar’s first encounter with Smithy’s daughter, Mara, he discloses that the monks with whom he has recently fallen out adhere to an unspecified brand of dualism. Their world is composed of opposites: light and dark, matter and nothingness. Omar had incited them to violence with a heretical proposition. He suggested that a third entity existed, just as strong as the equal and opposite forces of life and death.
This element is love, and it constitutes the conventional but compelling aim of Omar’s quest. To attain it will mean he is no longer alone and adrift in a friendless world. It is on Mara that Omar fixes his hopes for true love. But while Samir’s caravan family inspires loyalty and affection in the merchant, the disasters that dog Samir’s steps prompt his companions to peel off at every oasis and caravanserai. How long will Smithy and Mara persist? And if they defect, will Omar go with them?
It has become clear that Samir’s mode of business has disaffected more than Omar. Thus the many assassinations of the title. With Omar incessantly bargaining with Samir for his freedom, the two dodge the murderous designs of a Sufi mystic, a Bedouin raider, a Chinese apothecary, a Mongol with new-fangled gunpowder, and a rogue Roman legion.
From the start Samir has professed to be searching for “the merchant’s crown,” the elusive prize that will guarantee perpetual wealth and happiness. But when his possessions diminish as rapidly as his companions, Samir carries on, unperturbed. Omar observes that “he was the only person I ever met who didn’t dream of gold” (p. 185).
The conclusion of The Many Assassinations offers a twist that I, for one, did not anticipate. Whether this is a commentary on my astuteness as a reader or my ability to recognize love is up for discussion.
In Nayeri’s 2020 middle grade memoir he described his childhood flight from Iran, in company with his sister and mother, after the latter’s Christian faith led to threats on their lives. Despite the hardships they suffered all along the way, his mother’s faith persisted. Her unflinching hope is reflected in Nayeri’s ironictitle—Everything Sad Is Untrue: (a true story).
It seems appropriate, then, to invoke biblical Christianity in a discussion of Nayeri’s novel. A common anecdote suggests that fish cannot conceive of water even though it surrounds them—flows through them, in fact—and makes possible their existence. The biblical book of 1 John states that God, who breathed life into created humans, is Love. If that is so, Love is the very breath we breathe. But as with fish and water, it can be just as hard to see as air. And as difficult to recognize as a wise man in fool’s guise.
In the same way that Love often goes unrecognized, love in The Many Assassinations goes undercover in multiple ways. The novel reminds me that true love does not advertise or announce itself. Nor does it value what most consider important, if not essential.
Like Nayeri’s memoir this book is ostensibly for young people. But both works hold equal, if different, rewards for adults. Young readers unable to articulate the way in which The Many Assassinations is a love story may nevertheless intuit it. And even if they don’t, they’ll find much to amuse and appreciate in this caper across the Taklamakan Desert and into the Pamir Mountains.