Origins, By Amin Maalouf, trans Catherine Temerson

A family at sea from Beirut to Havana
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The Independent Culture

Amin Maalouf is the celebrated author of novels such as Samarkand, Leo the African and The Rock of Tanios. They re-conjure Omar Khayyam in 11th-century Persia, the Christian Inquisition in North Africa, and the imperialist torsions of 19th-century Lebanon. Rather than sturdy historical narratives or perky metafictions, Maalouf's novels exemplify the elementary arts of invention.

Oddly, this memoir of his ancestral "nameland" requires a similar suspension of disbelief from readers. Maalouf lives in Paris, retreats to the French Atlantic, and wrote in Havana and Beirut during the four-year journey of this book. It's a memoir that explodes notions of origin across a wide canvas, ultimately embracing all that family history and legend brings.

Maalouf starts by suggesting that his family name is "a homeland" and ends by acknowledging that he has "always recognised" Constantinople "as the metropolis of our origins". In between is his grandfather, Botros, about whom he writes: "It is in the ruins of his rebellion that I search for my origins." Those ruins are the thousands of pages of documents secreted in a trunk at the family house in a Lebanese mountain hamlet; Maalouf's most insistent origin and inheritance.

Despite a habitual lack of interest in ancestry, the author makes a rare visit to the "big house" and hauls the trunk back to Paris. He's overwhelmed with smiles, tears, and a wish to "vanish from the earth that instant without leaving a trace". Instead, he assembles answers, new questions and plans to pursue a holy legend to Cuba.

Born in 1949, Maalouf fled warring Lebanon in 1976. The lives of his grandfather and great Uncle Gebrayel embody a recurring dilemma. Botros the rebel stayed home and invested his free-thinking secularism in founding the "Universal School" in "the Mountains". Gebrayel left at 18 and made a fortune in Cuba, but died racing the car that it afforded him. Both little "empires" ended in ruins. Maalouf is an exact but benign judge of ancestors who have become "our children".

His account of visiting Gebrayel's Cuba conveys brilliantly the queer storm of distant intimacies and puzzling pride. The other Cuban story is Botros's failed attempt at emigration, which he reinvented as a legendary rescue of his younger brother. Botros the inadequate is the memoir's heart; his defeat by rival Catholic schools and relatives, his insistence on naming a daughter Kamal - after the modernising Atatürk.

Maalouf turns Botros into his theatre for the collapse of 400 years of Ottoman rule, with tragic religious and nationalist consequences. Origins is many things: an introduction to Lebanon's complex history, the end of Ottoman empire through Arab eyes, an intimate account of diasporic identity. Maalouf holds to his elliptical narrative with spirit and finesse. The result is both exquisitely tempered and rudely compelling. Believe it or not, Origins is a journey into an enlarged future.

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