Friday, October 21, 2016

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

This novel contains so much naked yearning, sadness, despair, and exhausted hilarity—poking fun at man’s powerlessness in the hands of Satan and Death accompanied by Angels—that we could be forgiven for imagining it a memoir. Alameddine has given us something rich upon which to sup, slowly, for there is much to assimilate. A poor Arab son of a whore (literally, as it turns out) is intellectually realized by nuns and priests in Beirut, schooling paid for by an absent father.

The boy and his schoolmates discover his gayness early, and the rest of his life is nary a denial, only acceptance, and once he found his circle, a verbally rich and figuratively celebratory consummation. Consumption is the other half of the story, the harvesting of lives, the dropping away of the circle. Alameddine does not shrink from the most revealing descriptions of life, love, and death in the life of a "little brown gay" man, just giving us pieces sometimes, as though he can’t remember clearly. He probably can’t, which is how we get the feeling that this is something remembered rather than merely invented.

This is not an easy read, there is so much thoughtful erudition here. Our eyes take in more than our brains can process. References to earlier works are everywhere apparent, some boldly proclaimed—Mikhail Bulgakov, Goethe, the Bible, the Quran—others we see faint outlines of in the swirl of colors and language that comprise invention, memory, and forgetting. This is a novel unlike any other, for that little brown gay Arab has given us something we have not seen before, all beauty and crescendo and wit and the most unbearable sense of loss. This is a revealing, naked novel that expresses a longing for acceptance, despair of a kindly world, and a stunning reversal—that hoarse, defiant shout, drenched in a kind of mad joy, into the void.

The novel opens with Satan having a conversation with Death. Shortly we learn that the man they came to discuss, Jacob, has signed himself into a mental hospital…to check his despair. The man, the little brown gay Arab, had lost many friends to AIDS in the scourge. He wants both to forget and to remember. It is not just his life he must remember, but all of it. All of his history, starting with his Yemeni blood. Satan tells us “forgetting is as integral to memory as death is to life.” It is not immediately obvious why we need to know this, and we are not sure we understand it anyway. We will forget it, and remember it again and again.
"Yemen is one of my favorite places, [said Death]...That nation has refreshed and rejuvenated me for centuries."
Love between partners is a momentous thing, not easily found and not easily lost. It lasts forever, some believe, or its vestiges linger forever. It leaves a mark. One is not supposed to lose one’s partner to death in mid-life. It is cruel. It is unnatural. This is the place where Jacob finds himself, struggling through a life filled with losses since childhood. Now in adulthood, he should be expert at it. And there is some resilience there that we poke and prod with interest. How will Jacob respond to his challenges?
”As it was in the beginning, said Satan, lying on my bed, so shall it be in the end, so shall it be first, last, midst, and without end, basically you’re screwed, Jacob, you know, the supremacy of Western civilization is based entirely on the ability to kill people from a distance….You can never win, Jacob.”
Death, on the other hand, promises peace, lethe, forgetfulness, and silence. “Peace on demand, instant gratification.” Which will our confused and suffering Jacob choose? His answer is foreshadowed throughout the novel and has something to do with his covering angels. Despair is normal, despite Jacob’s need for a psych ward. Despair is what we get, sometimes. Forgetting and remembering…you can’t have one without the other.
One early memory is Jacob envying his older cousin, a schoolgirl who faced life silently, in a beige school uniform. Jacob tells us “My Halloween costume that years [was] a headscarf with two pink pigtails sprouting out of it…”

An interview with Rabih Alameddine gives some notion of his carefully hidden depths. This link has the conversation recorded in a noisy cafe. I prefer it, though there is also a written transcript. It is a messy, imperfect thing, this interview, but Alameddine is just so irrepressibly himself.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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