Monday, January 10, 2011

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine — 528 pgs


Book CoverWhen Osama al-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns to Lebanon in 2003, it's not for a celebration or for a light-hearted visit. Instead, Osama has come to sit at the bedside of his seriously ill father, sharing stories with him during the final days of his life. As Osama relates his history and the history of his father and grandfather, he weaves miraculous and wonderful fairylike tales throughout his story. From Fatima, the woman who seduced a djinn, to Baybars, a lowly serf who rose to be one of the most generous and beloved leaders of the land, Osama shares it all. As he relates the story of how his parents met, or how his grandfather, a once admired storyteller called a hakawati, became who he was, or how his beloved uncle Jihad began to feed his love of stories from an early age, Osama spins fanciful and colorful yarns about heroes both mythical and strange. Scattered throughout these colorful stories, a picture or war torn Lebanon begins to emerge, from the casual bombings of the 70's to the barren wasteland that stretches across the countryside today. Paired with the Arabic fables and the modern day story of the bedside vigil over Osama's father, Alameddine treats his readers to a feast of otherworldly and impressive stories of yesterday and today.

This book is something my wonderful reading partner Aarti and I have wanted to share in a joint read for a long time. As the year passed and seasons turned, the timetable for this read kept slipping further and further away. With Aarti in grad school now, her reading time is limited and precious, and I was glad to find out that over her winter break she was excited about sharing this book with me. We both had a lot of fun with it and got caught up in the whorls of the mazelike story that Alameddine told. We decided to switch reviews this time around, and as such, here are Aarti's thoughts on The Hakawati. If you head on over to Booklust after reading this review, you can check out my thoughts as well!



I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after finishing The Hakawati, and I find that many of the character names and relationships and conflicts have slipped my mind. I don't remember all of King Baybars' slippery plots or Fatima's fantastic escape techniques or why Osama's aunts didn't get along. What does remain, though, is the sense that I was in the hands of a master storyteller. Rabih Alemeddine turns words into magic and takes readers, literally, on a magic carpet ride through history, blurring the line between fact and fiction and bringing all his characters to full-blooded life.

I personally preferred the Arabian Nights-esque stories much more than the modern-day family drama as related by Osama. Osama's family is fascinating and complex, but none of them caught my attention the way that Fatima and Baybars and Layla and Othman did in the stories. Which is interesting because in a way, the stories were populated by characters with fairly simple and straightforward lives and relationships. They knew their roles and played them and we never heard about domestic disputes. Instead, we were regaled with stories of heroism and deviousness and jealousy and how people must use their wits to prove their honor. In the modern day stories, we get none of that. Instead, we get realism which is (to me) not nearly as fair in its rewards system. Rather, the "real" characters in Osama's life are betrayed, hold grudges, don't seem to find much humor in life and live through countless military attacks.

One of my favorite things about the Arabian Nights, when the story is told well, is that it really is only one story. One plot line leads seamlessly into another, one character introduces us to the next and before we know it, we are in the midst of a completely different adventure than the one we started in. I love this method, and I think Alemeddine does it so well. Here, the stories are more distinct — you have to keep them straight in your head — but near the end, they all seem to converge in a perfect bow and it's amazing how he does it.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and many are forgettable (including, dare I say it, Osama himself). But there are others that are an absolute delight — Othman and his beautiful, intelligent wife Layla, Fatima and her determination to keep her family together, Baybars and his quest to get on the throne. I was thrilled every time I came across one of them in the book, as though I were seeing an old friend. And at the end of the book, I felt a little wistful that I'd not be able to accompany them on any more of their adventures or grow old with them.

But I can always open this book again and ride once more on a magic carpet, defeat a villainous magician, fight invading armies and bring beloved lovers back to life. And I think that's what I appreciated most about The Hakawati. It is escapist literature of the highest standard — taking you to a completely foreign world and then settling you gently back in your own life until you're ready for the ride again.

17 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Interesting. I don't think it's for me although I did love “Sita Sings the Blues," an amazingly clever animation which mingles the Indian myth The Ramayana with contemporary events. (It's publicly available on the web if you're interested)

Steph said...

"I don't remember all of King Baybars' slippery plots or Fatima's fantastic escape techniques or why Osama's aunts didn't get along. What does remain, though, is the sense that I was in the hands of a master storyteller."

That is what sealed the deal for me that this is something I need to read! It sounds just weird and wonderful enough that I think I would love it!

Jenny said...

Hmm, this is not something I ever would have picked up, and though I probably won't right away, it does sound interesting!

TheBookGirl said...

I am posting my comment on both your sites after reading both reviews.

From the synopsis, I thought that this one might be difficult to navigate, given the length and the movement between the present and the fantasy world, but it appears that you both had no problem once you got into the book.

I am curious whether you think this is a work that could be read in parts -- that’s the way I read Tales of the Arabian Nights -- or if you think that would detract from the intended effect of the book?

Thanks so much for highlighting this one. I am fairly confident it would not have appeared on my radar screen without your thoughtful reviews.

Sandy Nawrot said...

This is not even close to something that would show up on my radar, but I guess that is why we read each others' blogs! This book sounds rich and complex enough that you could probably read it again and again and still find new facets of it in the details.

Zibilee said...

Book Girl, I don't think that this book would have had the same impact had it been split up over several shorter reads because there were too many threads that were intertwined that may have suffered from breaking it up into little parts. I can totally see why you would ask though, as it is a lot like The Arabian Nights, and that books is one that you can digest in bite sized chunks.

Suko said...

Beautiful review, Zibilee. Your closing paragraph compels me to read The Hakawati.

Aarti said...

So fun reading this with you, Heather! I enjoyed every minute. I'm so glad we were able to make time for it :-)

Valerie said...

I loved "The Hakawati", and I'm glad you both enjoyed it! I read it nearly a year ago, and for me, I recall bits and pieces of the contemporary story better than the myth-based stories. It all was very good, though, and I definitely would like to re-read it again in the future.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Oh, thanks for trading posts, ladies! I really like your review style, Aarti. This looks interesting and something I'll eventually find myself picking up. I was never, in the past, one for short stories or long tangents with in thicker books but, as I've gotten older, or maybe I'm just in a weird, passing stage, I've found myself drawn more and more to books that sound similar to this one in style. thanks again for switching it up!

Nymeth said...

I need to read this! I love the "one-ness" of the original Arabian Nights too, and it's wonderful to hear that Alemeddine captures that.

Buried In Print said...

"Instead, we were regaled with stories of heroism and deviousness and jealousy and how people must use their wits to prove their honor. In the modern day stories, we get none of that."

I kinda felt the same way but, as I neared the end of the novel, I started wondering if there were more interconnections between the tales relayed and the contemporary story line than I recognized on a first pass. Either way, it was a wonder+ful read for sure!

bermudaonion said...

This does sound like a good book, but I'm not sure it would be a good pick for me right now.

Zibilee said...

Buried In Print, that is something that we talked about too! We wondered if the modern day story had any connection to the mythical sections, and for the life of us, we couldn't find any connections. I had been thinking that there was some correlation between the two Fatimas, but we quickly decided against that. So cool to know that we were not alone in wondering about that!

Marie said...

Awww. I know what you mean about the characters in this book; I loved them, too. I got a little lost in all the winding roads of storytelling but it was pretty magical.

Darlene said...

Great review. I don't think this is a a book for me but I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Swapna said...

I'm reading a book right now called The Storyteller of Marrakesh, and it sounds a bit similar. This sounds like an interesting book, I'll have to check it out.

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