The Storyteller, By Rabih Alameddine
Sunday 05 July 2009
Alameddine, his name apparently a derivative of Aladdin, rejoices in the ability to spin a story that lasts for 1,001 nights, while simultaneously describing the effects of Israeli attacks on his homeland, Lebanon, over the past 30 years. With enviable ease, he weaves in the magic of the Arabian nights, the loss of his childhood home so many years ago, and his visit to his slowly dying father, to create something that feels both postmodern and traditional at the same time.
Ultimately, though, Alameddine's novel is about the nature of legacy, about his grandfather Ismail, who delights him when he is small with tales of his own growing up. The illegitimate son of a married English doctor and his Lebanese maid, Ismail describes how he was shunned by the doctor's wife and bullied by her daughters. Where he found salvation was in the talents of the local hakawati, or storyteller, admiring his ability to dazzle listeners with his tales.
These tales, dominated by the slave- girl Fatima and her attempts to help her mistress conceive a son after many years of producing daughters, are passed on to the narrator of the novel, who has returned to Beirut after years abroad to tend to his dying father. The apartment building where he grew up is a wreck, but his family hasn't changed: like big families the world over, there are perpetual disagreements, making up, hugs and tears.
This book has a feisty female heroine in Fatima, which is important in a novel where the tales are being passed from man to man. The greatest, and original, storyteller, though, was, of course, Scheherazade: it was a woman who was, not the object of the stories, but the teller of them; it was a woman who was the first hakawati. War and killing and oppression make us forget that at our peril.
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