The Disoriented, by Amin Maalouf

I sometimes worry that I spend too much time thinking about the meaning of titles, especially with literary fiction. They’re riddles I can’t resist. So, as I read The Disoriented, by Amin Maalouf (and excellently translated by Frank Wynne), I wondered what it meant to mean to be disoriented. Was Maalouf playing with the idea of being lost? Making one’s way through life without a map? Or was he taking it a step further and trading on the idea of what it means to be oriental? I saw evidence of all of these as I read, but I was left to draw my own conclusions about identity, about paths through life, about obligations—much like the characters in The Disoriented.

Adam left his homeland (which I’m pretty sure is Lebanon, even though it’s never said) in the 1970s, just as civil war was breaking out. Even though he’s been gone for twenty-odd years, Adam hasn’t stopped thinking about the group of friends he left behind. They were tight, more than one might expect from Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle East. They met in university and talked philosophy, politics, religion, anything. But then the war came. Adam broke and ran. Naïm’s family fled to Brasil. Albert was kidnapped and escaped to the United States. Sémiramis lost her family, but was able to reinvent herself as a hotel owner. The Ramzs’ built an empire before one of them decided to become a monk. The person who haunts Adam the most is his greatest friend, Mourad. Mourad did something so terrible that Adam barely spoke to him again. It’s only Mourad’s death that brings Adam back to his country.

The Disoriented is a slow, roundabout exploration of a novel. Through Adam’s letters, emails, diary entries, and experiences back in his homeland, we see all of the friends’ stories unfold. Adam tries to make conclusions. As a historian, he can’t help himself. He brings us along with all his thoughts but, because he is a good historian, he always lets people tell their stories without editorializing. It seemed like all of the characters reacted in a completely different way to the same stimulus. One collaborated. Another survived. Even the emigrants took different paths. No one had the same war. In that end, the only firm conclusions I can reach is that history should be told as individual stories, so that history doesn’t get glossed over with statistics and broad movements.

I wasn’t sure about this book at first. Adam struck me as pretentious at first. I also thought he was a bit revisionist about his own history. It was only when I got further into The Disoriented that I started to understand that the book was trying to do. My early irritation vanished as I dove into the stories of Adam and his best friends. This is a remarkable work of literary fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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