Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine, author of two previous novels ( I, The Divine and Koolaids), and a collection of short stories ( The Perv), opens his third novel, The Hakawati (an Arabic word meaning "storyteller") with an imperative - and an invitation to the reader: "Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story."
The phrasing only seems anticlimactic. A god, after all, is serial storyteller, with all history as the god's book. Thus The Hakawati's myriad stories - and stories within stories - range from Pharaonic times to present-day Lebanon. They make a rollicking good read. Bawdy, allusive, sad, funny and universal in its themes, yet with a finely observed sense of place, The Hakawati is a splendid achievement.
- The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine, Bond Street, 513 pages, $32.95
No doubt with an apocalyptic eye on the post-9/11 United States, Alameddine has called his impresario-narrator Osama al-Kharrat. The first name needs no gloss; the second does. The al-Kharrats are wealthy, and the al-Kharrat Corp., "the family fountain of fortune," is a Beirut car dealership.
"The Lebanese lacked a sense of irony," Osama observes with a deadpan humour that characterizes much of The Hakawati's narrative style. "No one paid attention to the little things. No one thought it strange that a car dealership, and the family that ran it, had a name that meant 'exaggerator,' 'teller of tall tales,' 'liar.' " Osama's grandfather, a storyteller in Beirut's bars and cafés, came by the name.
The Hakawati has a glittering pedigree. If some Arab writers, like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, have their roots in 19th-century realism, Alameddine's go back to the beginnings of written texts, the frame tales of the Indus Valley. As well as The Hakawati, their descendants include Scheherazade's epic of storytelling, The Thousand and One Nights, which, according to Sir Richard Burton, evolved from the Sanskrit Vikram and the Vampire, also known as Twenty-five Tales of Baital. Scholars trace the many-hued tradition back to the Sanskrit Panchatantra (attributed to Vishnu Sarma), which made its way into Persia as The Lights of Canopus. Ovid's Metamorphoses, Apuleius's Golden Ass, Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Sterne's Tristram Shandy are all frame tales - as, in its way, is Cervantes's Don Quixote. They are genes in the genome of the modern novel, and The Hakawati has inherited all these and more - much more. Its other sources include Homer, the Old Testament, the Koran and Shakespeare - to name a few.
The stories intersect, bifurcate, rejoin in a fabulous chain reaction
The Hakawati's first frame, set in an indeterminate past, is the story of an emir whose wife has given him 12 beautiful daughters but who cannot conceive a son. The obvious solution would be for him to take another wife, one of his slaves, Fatima. As his vizier remarks, "[She]would be an excellent candidate. Her hips are more than adequate; her breasts have been measured. A tremendous nominee, if I may say so myself."
Though Fatima is willing enough, the emir is not. He wishes to remain faithful to his wife. However, in Alexandria, Fatima knows a woman, Bast, "whose powers are unmatched. She is directly descended, female line, from Ankhara herself, Cleopatra's healer and keeper of the asps. If she is given a lock of my mistress's hair, she will be able to see why my mistress has not produced a boy and will give out the appropriate remedy. She never fails."
Fatima's journey across the desert to Alexandria and her vanquishing of brigands sets the scene for one narrative thread, a kind of Arabian Nights magical realism, the world of djinns and demons and slaves and merchants - a caravanserai of storytelling.
The Hakawati has a second, contemporary frame: Osama's 2003 pilgrimage, after a long exile in Los Angeles, where he is a software engineer, to Beirut. There, in the city still scarred from the civil war of the 1970s, his family has gathered to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Ibrahim's willingness to obey Allah and sacrifice his son (Ishmael, in Muslim tradition) on the mountain.
Osama's father is dying, the death of a parent mirroring the putative sacrifice of a son, as Osama is expected to take his father's place in the al-Kharrat company.
As the festival unfolds and the family congregates around the hospital bed of the dying paterfamilias, they exchange stories and establish another narrative chain. The storytellers include Osama's Uncle Jihad, a homosexual relic of prewar Lebanon, who (as his name suggests) is waging a sexual holy war against the repressive postwar society. They also include Osama's old friend and confidante, the bejewelled Fatima (an avatar of the emir's Fatima) and her sexually predacious sister, Mariella, who wins beauty contests because her militia lovers threaten the judges. Fatima II, a link across time with the emir's Fatima, milks Saudi moneymen in Mercs.
The stories intersect, bifurcate, rejoin in a fabulous chain reaction - The Hakawati throwing off a dazzling array of narrative sparks as a disintegrating atomic nucleus geometrically multiplies neutrons. It coruscates and glitters like the demon star Algol. It is, literally, a devil of a book.
Chris Scott's first novel, Bartleby, was a frame narrative.