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.

The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

I’ve seen other books described in reviews as dazzling and mostly thought of the adjective as just a synonym for great or wonderful. But as I finished Rabih Alameddine’s monumentally imaginative novel, The Hakawati, I really felt dazzled. At its heart, the novel describes the emotional and physical journey a son makes to visit his father as he lies dying in a hospital in Beirut. But because our protagonist, Osama, is the grandson of a hakawati (an itinerant storyteller), his story is just a kernel for a profusion of other stories. Some of the stories show us Osama’s family history. Others are entirely fantastical and feature demons and djinn. Yet others are a blend of myth and history. This book is stuffed but never feels too long. I would happily have sat at the feet of the storytellers in this book for more.

The primary narrative features a middle-aged Osama returning to Beirut after decades in the United States. He had left the country in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War to study engineering in California. Before he left, Osama was part of a tightly-knit, sprawling family of cousins, aunts and uncles, his parents, and his notorious grandfather. The more we learn about his family, the more we realize that Osama was not just running from violence. He was also running from a philandering father and a brittle mother and warring relatives. I loved the parts of the novel that revealed Osama’s grandfather’s history in pre-World War I Lebanon; it’s like looking into a vanished world.

A second narrative that runs through the entirety of The Hakawati. In this narrative, a woman named Fatima turns her strong will into magic. Her sections are some of the funniest and the bleakest parts of the novel. I adored her entrance. Fatima is the servant of an emir who wants a son. To date, his wife has delivered daughters. The emir learns of a witch who has the secret of bearing a male child. Because he can’t go himself, he sends Fatima. Fatima doesn’t take a large escort because she doesn’t think it’s necessary. So, of course, she and her small party are almost immediately set upon by bandits. To get out of being raped and murdered, Fatima starts to spin a story about how her lover (her “plaything”) is a powerful demon and that none of the bandits could satisfy her. This story causes the bandits to attack each other…and also starts Fatima on a long, strong journey in and out of the underworld.

The last major narrative does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s framed as a story that the emir from the second narrative to his wife while she’s pregnant, to inspire their unborn child to become a great hero. It’s also referenced in Osama’s story as a family favorite. Ultimately, this story—which relates the almost entirely fictional adventures of a real-life historical figure, Mamluk sultan Baibars—blends prophecy, propaganda, and a smidgeon of history. Late in The Hakawati, a young Osama is shocked to learn that this beloved story is mostly not true. His Uncle Jihad tells him that it doesn’t matter whether or not a story is literally true. Rather, stories are the official versions of our own histories. Stories, literally true or otherwise, are what we want to remember and pass on to the next generation.

These three narratives are surrounded by tangents and side stories. All of these stories not only frame each other (there are so many layers in this book!), they also reinforce each other by repeating motifs. We see couples desperate for male children (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael make several appearances), lots of jealousy, poor decisions and misuse of magic, plenty of sex and death, family obligations, feuds, and so much more. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to spot the thesis of the book for several chapters. Every theory I came up with would be exploded by a new tale that didn’t fit. Thankfully, I gave that up when I realized I was overthinking things. The Hakawati is a celebration of stories and their power. Because it is full of so many kinds of stories, with so many different characters and plots and endings, The Hakawati has something for everyone—especially for readers who are never tired of hearing a new yarn.

Beirut Hellfire Society, by Rawi Hage

Trigger warning for graphic violence.

The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 and continued for the next fifteen years. Rawi Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Society takes place in 1978, as bombs fall on the city and factions turn Beirut into so many front lines that it’s almost impossible to venture much beyond one’s own neighborhood. This episodic and heartbreaking novel centers on Pavlov, the son of an unusual narrator who provides cremations for people who have either been refused a traditional Christian or Muslim burial or who want something that’s not traditional. Pavlov carries on his father’s work and tries to deliver some mercy in a city that is quickly becoming an apocalypse.

Pavlov reminded me strongly of Akhmed, the tragic hero of one of my favorite novels, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Like Akhmad, Pavlov is a kind, thoughtful man in a place and time that does not reward either of those qualities. Well, there are some people who appreciate Pavlov: the scattered members of the Hellfire Society. This version is not exactly a reconstruction of the Regency era versions founded in England. There are libertines (and there is one graphic orgy depicted near the end of the book), but most of the members are just people who don’t fit into wider society. There’s the woman who wants to be buried with her lover instead of her husband. There’s the man who, after a too-late epiphany, wants to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the same place as his son and his son’s lover. Pavlov listens to their stories without judgment and agrees to their last wishes, no matter how much effort it will cause him.

In between the chapters about members of the Hellfire Society, Pavlov reacts to the chaos and violence around him. He’s not above violence himself, but I get the feeling that he wishes that everyone around him would stop all of the violence that has destroyed their city. The fighters of the various factions no doubt believe that they’re fighting for the right cause though, from Pavlov’s eyes, it looks like nothing more than acts of random cruelty. Pavlov is profoundly non-partisan. Readers who want to know more about the actual history will need to learn the details elsewhere. Pavlov only gives us an undertaker’s view: war and violence just means that there are more bodies to bury.

Beirut Hellfire Society is a harrowing, heart-breaking read. But for all the shocking violence and sex, I appreciated it’s unique perspective on war. Pavlov, self-taught through reading Greek philosophy, is Stoic in his outlook for the most part. He walks the knife-edge of an existential crisis. There are many times when Pavlov decides that everything is meaningless then, only a chapter or two later, he is dancing next to a fresh body or a grave in a fit of ecstatic celebration that he’s alive. It would be easy for Pavlov to slip into nihilism, but I feel that his efforts to continue his father’s work and provide a bit of meaning to the rituals that have developed around death give him a reason to keep going.

I have a feeling that Beirut Hellfire Society will make a lot of people uncomfortable and I think that’s exactly what this story is supposed to do. We should always wonder about what death means—if only so that lives are not wasted the way the Pavlov saw far too often in the middle of his country’s civil war. The more I read, the more I started to agree with Pavlov, that people should be able to dictate their funerals. Funerals are the punctuation at the end of a life. In this book, we see some people choosing a funeral that is an exclamation point. Others want a semi-colon to link themselves back to their loved ones. That Pavlov can deliver on these people’s requests is a beautiful thing (in a really bleak way).

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

A street in Beirut in 2008, showing unrepaired damage sustained during the Civil War. (Image via Wikicommons)

Arabian Journey, by Levison Wood

I’ve realized that I have a deep love of nonfiction accounts of amazing, slightly-crazy journeys. Levison Wood’s An Arabian Journey definitely fits the bill. Wood, a journalist and world traveler, had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark—Europeans who traveled into the Arabian desert and made friendships with Bedouins, Arabs, and the other residents of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

When Wood first floated his idea of walking around the Arabian Peninsula to two friends he wanted to go with him, they told him he was nuts. Not only was he nuts, they told him, but they had proof that the idea could never work. Many of the places Wood wanted to visit during the fall of 2017 were active war zones, had recently been war zones, or were shaping up to possibly war zones in the near future. It would be incredibly dangerous because of all the fighting on top of the fact that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Wood, of course, goes anyway.

An Arabian Journey is an amble of a book, fittingly enough. Wood starts in Syria and Kurdistan, planning to walk “clockwise” around the Peninsula—which of course puts him in the middle of the Syrian Civil War and the lingering fight against ISIL. In each country, Wood travels with a guide/fixer. Some of these, as his guides in Oman and Saudi Arabia, are great. Others, like his cantankerous guide in Iraq, are so awful that Wood regrets even starting out. It didn’t take me long to figure out, based on these detailed sketches of the people he works with and meets, that Wood is as interested in people as he is in the scenery of the desolate deserts and mountains of the Peninsula.

Wood is at his best when he’s talking about that scenery. He loves the empty spaces and wildness and arid danger. He marvels at the flora and fauna of the magical sounding island of Sir Bani Yas and the frankincense trees of western Oman. A lot of his journey is miserable, mostly because his luck in picking guides is dreadful about half of the time. When he has a good guide, like his guides in Oman who hooked him up with good camels, Wood can almost transport you. These passages make up for the parts when Wood is at the mercy of guides who half-ass their way through the desert or who want to scam him out of more money. Wood’s account is completely honest, for good or ill.

An Arabian Journey mostly scratched my itch to travel (via words) to remote places full of history and packed with interesting people and animals. I would never have the gumption to pack up for a long walking tour in my own country, let alone traveling to a place that is so dangerous for so many reasons as Wood did. I’m glad that I got to tag along, in a way—even if there were parts I wish Wood had glossed over. If you have a yen to visit far away places via print, I would recommend An Arabian Journey.

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

An Arabian Oryx, one of the many amazing animals Wood saw while hoofing it around the Arabian Peninsula. (Image via Wikicommons)

Footprints in the Desert, by Maha Akhtar

Maha Akhtar’s Footprints in the Desert had so much potential. T.E. Lawrence makes an appearance and blows up trains and tracks. The Ottoman Empire is fighting against Faisal ibn Hussein‘s Arab Revolt. The main characters are on the run from Ottoman agents in Cairo. What’s not to like? In all honesty, this book has only its setting to recommend itself. The characters were, if not outright caricatures, shallow and one-dimensional. The dialog is dreadful. The pacing is all over the place. Most of the protagonists have miraculous escapes (except when a minor character is sacrificed to make the story more believable). I’m sure the only reasons I finished this book were the fact that I was tired after a week of library conferencing and trapped on a plane for a couple of hours. I didn’t have many brain cells to spare for anything better.

The plot, in brief, follows Salah as he escapes (repeatedly) from the forces of an Ottoman pasha. Salah is wanted because he has been stealing information about troops and trains for the British and the nascent Arab revolutionaries. He’s not entirely sold on the idea of an pan-Arab state, but he likes them better than he likes the Ottomans. (Motivations are only rarely examined in Footprints in the Desert.) Meanwhile, his long-time love, Noura, is recently widowed and in need of shelter. Both make their way to Cairo, where Salah’s mother lives. The rest of the book is a repeat of Salah does something, then the Ottomans fail to kidnap the right people or blow the right things up, and Salah remains at large. This sequence is replayed almost half a dozen times until World War I comes to an end and the Ottoman Empire is dissolved.

I can’t recommend this book at all.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 4 August 2015.