Alameddine (I, the Divine, 2001, etc.) mingles a four-generation family saga with a cornucopia of Arabian tales and historical dramas to create a one-of-a-kind novel.
Osama al-Kharrat returns in 2003 to Beirut, where his family once owned a prosperous car dealership, to visit his dying father Farid. Their relationship has always been uneasy, as was Farid’s with his own father. Osama’s grandfather was a hakawati: “a teller of tales, myths, and fables…someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns.” Farid, ashamed of a progenitor dependent on the favor of the local bey, was none too happy that Osama loved his grandfather’s stories, nor did he want the boy to play the oud, a traditional Middle Eastern instrument. Farid's generation were modern Lebanese, not particularly religious or invested in their heritage. Right up to the moment they had to flee war-torn Beirut in 1977, Osama's family remained convinced their country would not be directly affected by the Arab world's endless battle with Israel. Osama, who has lived most of his adult life in California, speedily sinks back into the excitable embrace of his extended family (including numerous strongminded women) as they take turns at his father’s hospital bedside. The history of the al-Kharrats and of Lebanon unfolds side by side with multiple strands of Arabian folklore creatively reimagined by Alameddine, who mischievously informs us at one point that his surname is a variant of Aladdin. Not content to let a single jinni out of a bottle, the author summons up a vast array of imps, demons, witches, warriors, slave kings and fierce females to embed his contemporary characters in the splendor of Middle Eastern culture. Chief among these mythic figures are Fatima and Baybars, plucked from legend to serve the author’s art as he entwines their odysseys with the al-Kharrats’ throughout the book. There’s so much going on here that readers will occasionally feel overwhelmed, and the multilayered narrative sags slightly under its own weight in the middle section. But no one interested in boundary-defying fiction will want to miss Alameddine’s high-wire act.
A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance.