Expatriate Lebanese novelist Maalouf (Balthasar’s Odyssey, 2002, etc.) explores the gap between family legend and family history.
The author begins and ends with the death of his father, who fatally surrendered to a stroke on the anniversary of his own father’s death. Sifting through a trunk of correspondence, photographs and ephemera, Maalouf’s obsession grew as he discovered that his kin’s story unfolded in several countries and was intricately tied to the history of another household in the same village in Lebanon. Traveling through time and space as he tracked the evolution of his family, Maalouf learned that his grandfather, Botros, staunchly refused to baptize his six children, believing that true spirituality resulted from education and choice. Botros’s brother, a devout Catholic and member of the clergy, deemed both his methods and his marriage to a Protestant woman reprehensible. In addition to the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, other tensions brewed between those who emigrated and those who stayed, between living family members and the dead they remembered. Maalouf’s narrative gains in emotional immediacy from its lack of the polished presentation often found in memoirs. We witness him sobbing on his Paris apartment floor in front of the trunk, devastated to realize how much he doesn’t know. We rejoice with him at finding the decorated tomb of his great uncle, who emigrated to Havana and earned success unobtainable to his relatives in Lebanon. While exploring his own history, Maalouf inevitably stumbles across the effects of events played on the larger screen of his country and the world, such as the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and World War I. His kin’s reactions to tragedies and triumphs both personal and universal add to the book’s vibrant texture and tone.
A shimmering portrait of a clan molded by history and personal whim.