Book Review: Rabih Alameddine’s “Angel of History” — Knocked Askew
This is a book about “survivor’s guilt,” and also about the terrible loneliness that comes of losing so many whom you love.
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine, Atlantic Monthly Press, 299 pages, $26.
By Roberta Silman
Back in February of 2014 I wrote a review of Alameddine’s novel An Unnecessary Woman, which was a sustained and engaging tour de force about an elderly translator who lived for the written word. Since I, too, live for the written word, I admired the work, but in the end, didn’t love it and wasn’t even sure it was a novel. However, that book went on to become a finalist for the National Book Award, making Alameddine a writer to watch even more closely. And I do remember wondering what he would do next, especially since I felt that An Unnecessary Woman changed gears towards the end and was fascinated by Aaliya’s last sentence: “I take a long breath, the air of anticipation.”
In his new novel Alameddine has stayed closer to home, but has stuck to his notion of a novel. Here the protagonist is the Yemeni-born poet Jacob, who reviews his life as an Arab gay man in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic in San Francisco because he can no longer cope with the loss of his lover and friends during the AIDS epidemic and now seems to be giving up on his life. Of course his memories play a great role in this exercise, but to make it more interesting Alameddine has employed the services of not only Satan and Death, but also fourteen saints who “attend to Jacob.”
This is a book about “survivor’s guilt,” and also about the terrible loneliness that comes of losing so many whom you love. And there are some beautiful set pieces — about his conception when his mother was a mere fourteen years old, about his father’s abandonment of his young family, about his upbringing in a whorehouse in Cairo, his school years in Beirut, his relationship with his wealthy father, and his teetering on the edge of suicide as he plunges deeper and deeper into the past. Here is the moving passage when he leaves the whorehouse in Egypt at age ten where he has had all those “Aunties” in addition to his young mother:
You’re my young man now, my mother said, trying to instill courage in my veins, but none was needed. I had no idea that the ritual was a final farewell, everyone expected me to break down in tears, all the room was bawling except for confused me until my mother brought out the janbiya, lightsome and fake, and I began to howl and the whore chorus stopped crying. This is not good, one auntie said, how is he to become a man, that one, I never thought he would, may God watch over him, and Auntie Badeea put the knife in her belt and my mother shut her eyes until I calmed.
When the day came for me to leave, I carried a small potted plant in a paper bag, a sage for my tummy aches, its green leaves with goosebumps peeking over the top of the bag, an old Arab tradition, travel with earth, with home mud, stay rooted to your land. Palestinian refugees kept keys to their houses for generations, hidden in boxes, in kerchiefs, their adult children’s children not knowing what the houses looked like or where they were, yet they cherished the keys, and in a poem Bertolt Brecht compared himself to a man who carried a brick to show how beautiful his house once was, and the nice Lebanese stewardess who watched over me took the sage away when I boarded and forgot to return it when she delivered me to my father.
And, just as in An Unnecessary Woman, this protagonist is widely read and highly intelligent. And adventurous and funny and a smart-ass at times, as he parries with dour Death and mischievous Satan, who sometimes seems to be an elusive angel, the angel of history who fascinated Klee and Gershon Scholem and Walter Benjamin, among others. So there were times when I found myself laughing out loud, which is rare when reading modern fiction. And also feeling close to tears when he described some of the grueling deaths of his loved ones.
But as I went through the interviews, journal entries and Jacob’s stories, as well as far too much detail about his sex life (which felt old since so many other writers, like Michael Cunningham and Philip Roth and more recently Jonathan Safran Foer, have done it ad nauseam) I began to feel as if I was in the middle of a rant that was not only claustrophobic, but also repetitious, and, frankly, a little boring. I also had the feeling that we were getting everything but the kitchen sink, and that some of this material — although written beautifully — was more like Nabokov’s notes on his famous file cards that had yet to be shaped into something artful and truly important.
And when I got to an antique yarn under the title “Jacob’s Stories” and entitled “The Cage in the Penthouse,” I was appalled. This disgusting story has been making the rounds for as long as I’ve lived: it is about the pet of the very rich and it is not an esoteric animal, as one might suspect, but a human being. When I was a child in Brooklyn, the person caged was an immigrant Jew. I heard it in high school as a drunken Irishman, then later as a Black man, and now, the caged animal is an Arab reading the Quaran. In any incarnation it is awful, and demeans anyone who tells it. I am surprised that someone as smart as Alameddine could have included it and even more surprised that one of his first readers didn’t urge him to cut it.
So what to say? In trolling the Internet I found an 2014 interview Dwyer Murphy did with Alameddine in an online magazine called Guernica. Alameddine said, “I’m Lebanese, but not that much, American, but not that much. Gay, but not that much. The only thing I’m sure of, really, is that I’m under 5’7”.
He is also enormously talented, and maybe it is time to take that promised “long breath, that air of anticipation” and spend some time reading some of the great writers — like Trollope, Tolstoy, Marquez, Cortazar, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Bronte, among others — and harness his gifts to a story worth telling. Then, the sky may be the limit, and his already distinctive voice will speak to us more urgently and memorably than it has done so far.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at email@example.com.