Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Notes / Reading this week

Because I can't read just one book at a time, I have all these loose ends that need to be tied up. (So don't believe everything you read on a sidebar). I'm closer to finishing The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine than I was last week.

The only problem that I have with this novel is that I can't read it casually (which degree of intensity would really suit my lifestyle). It seems as if every paragraph has embedded within it an observation, an analogy, a metaphor -- and not in an undesirable way -- that stops me in my tracks and forces me to re-examine the preceding passages. I'm not well-versed in the history of Lebanon, having to draw sometimes as much from the common cultural sense of "Middle East" (unfortunately) and from my friendship with a family that fled the troubled nation when I was very young as I draw from my past reading experiences. But maybe this isn't as much of an obstacle as I worried it could be. In May 2008, in a review in the New York Times, Lorraine Adams wrote:

If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book — a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller). 'Listen,' Rabih Alameddine invites. 'Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.'

In the beginning, rapt by details of Osama's (the narrator's) return to his country of origin, I was thirsty for images of modern Lebanon as seen through the eyes of one who had lived through harsher times there. Now, I find myself adrift between the ancient times of legend and my sense of the modern country and it doesn't bother me because the story is captivating.

I see the parallel that the author draws between the story of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham, and the story of his grandfather's life, and I note the differences. In this way, I am at the will of Alameddine and not just because he directs my journey -- I've come under a spell of timelessness that he has deftly cast:

'The Hakawati' uses one of the oldest forms of storytelling, the frame tale. Western readers know it from 'The Canterbury Tales,' but the device precedes Chaucer by well over a thousand years, originating in Sanskrit texts known variously as the 'Panchatantra,' 'The Fables of Bidpai' or 'Tales of Kalila and Dimna.' As Doris Lessing notes in her introduction to the most recent English translation, one version of the Sanskrit framing narrative has Alexander the Great enlisting an Indian sage to reform a cruel potentate by telling him stories. In another, an Indian king uses the stories to arouse the curiosity of his three sons, whose brains have gone soft from privilege. Whatever the original frame, the history of the whole collection is a record of the cross-fertilization of cultures. Through storytelling, the conquered and the conquering can become as close as family.

I'll admit that I don't usually read reviews before reading a book (almost never), but you only stand to gain when a reviewer encapsulates an idea more succinctly and to a greater depth than you yourself could. And, again, I'm in unfamiliar territory because my exposure to Chaucer at university was scant at best. Regretfully, I can't riff on the cultural significance of story-telling through the ages, other than to surmise that mores and value systems are heritable and that the story-teller, among other things, is an agent therefor.

I'm happy just to sit right back and listen to a tale (or two) unfold because the voice is mellifluous and mesmerizing.

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