Jacob is an angry, lonely man who has lost his ability to write poetry. Oh, and he’s hearing and seeing things again. Rabih Alameddine’s spellbinding The Angel of History tells Jacob’s life story as he spends a day at a mental health clinic trying to convince the staff to lock him up for 72 hours. Jacob just can’t take it anymore. His friends and lovers died years ago and now the news is full of drone strikes against his former homeland, Yemen. Without poetry as an outlet, Jacob is adrift in his own mind. But The Angel of History is not just a biographical novel, it’s also a supernatural race against time as Satan and the fourteen saints that Jacob has seen and heard all his life try to get the poet to acknowledge them again.
The Angel of History opens, not with Jacob, but with Satan interviewing Death. Satan believes that Jacob has forgotten something very important. They don’t know what it is, but if Jacob can remember it, he can recapture who he used to be before his anger and misery and loneliness began to destroy him. Over the course of the novel, Satan will meet with all fourteen of Jacob’s saints. (All of these saints have been culled from the Catholic registers and all hail from somewhere in the Near East.) These passages are delightfully irreverent. If Satan and the saints don’t figure it out before Jacob gets medication, they will be lost to antidepressants and antipsychotics.
When Jacob gets to tell his tale, either through his reflections at the clinic or his journals, the tone of the novel shifts from rage to satire to grief to sexual ecstasy. Jacob was born in to a very young mother Yemeni and a very young Lebanese father. Because his mother was forced to return home after being fired by Jacob’s father’s family, Jacob began the life of an exile young. His mother eventually turned to prostitution in Cairo to support the two of them. Jacob, at first, remembers this as the happiest part of his life before Satan and the saints start kicking up repressed memories.
After Jacob emigrates to the United States (after a stint in a Catholic school in Beirut), he becomes part of the LGBT life in San Francisco just as the AIDS epidemic takes hold. The disease takes Jacob’s partner and most of his best friends, leaving him alone for the best part of twenty years. By the time Jacob goes to the clinic, he has been coping with being a Middle Eastern man in a country “at war on Terror” for years.
The Angel of History is deeply affecting. While Jacob struggles with depression, his anger stood out to me the most. This anger was most visible in the story excerpts from Jacob’s work. (The poet has turned to prose because he feels that all his poetry is trite and terrible.) The satire in those stories burns. I’ve never read anything quite like it. And because this book shows so much anger, I think it stands out from the LGBTQ literature and immigrant fiction I’ve read so far.
This book is an amazing achievement. Alameddine balances supernatural against mental illness in such a way that this book can be read literally (as if Jacob is Satan’s pet project) and as a fictional biography of a man breaking down under mental strain. The anger in Jacob’s story is a strong statement against injustices that get brushed aside as ancient history by people who weren’t there (the AIDS epidemic) or because people have outrage fatigue (drone warfare, the War on Terror). As an added bonus, the end of this book had me cheering with joy for Jacob.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 October 2016.