This is a book about storytelling, so all there are a lot of plot strands to follow. There's the stories about his extended family, like Uncle Jihad, his sister Lina, the rise of the family's car dealerships, life in Beirut under the Civil War, and so forth. There's the fanciful tale of Fatima, a servant who becomes lover of a demon and partners with 8 mischievous imps (Adam, Noah, Ishmael...you get the idea) to do battle with King Kade, the white goddess-like figure). There's the retelling of the legent of Baybars, the 13th century fellow who rose from slave to warrior and battled...well, I honestly got a little mixed up with this story, as it's the one that started last.
Our opinions ranged from "This is why I read fiction" to "Boy, this guy bit off a lot. I'm not sure he was able to chew it all." Reviews similarly ranged from incredible to problematic, but of course tended more to the former. After reading The Hakawati, I tried to get as many insights as I could about the book. My one contribution that I hadn't read elsewhere, was noting that cheering for Fatima, aligned with the demon, throwing conventional good and evil on its head, played off the recent historical fragments where folks of different religions (and there are a lot of different religious peoples in the book) demonize everyone else, but to the others, they are the demons. Similarly, that is probably why the most likable folks in the book are named Osama and Jihad--this actually came from one of club members, not me. But I agree.
I think Alameddine adopts a style that rejects certain traditional forms for novels. In a sense, his first two novels (Koolaids, and I The Divine) are both composed of fragments, the second actually being all composed of first chapters. In the case of The Hakawati, Alameddine offered the least storytime to the most traditional novel narrative, that of the framing story of modern-day Osama. This is totally stolen from two other critics, but it may be why I dipped into Koolaids, but never read it.
We all felt we would have appreciated the novel even more if we were more familiar with the source material. I was fascinated by how he told stories from so many different sources and made them his own. As usual, the results were an embarrassing blot on my reading history--how could I not have read Ovid's Metamorphoses? And am I reading it next? No. I have event books to conquer.
The book club was successful for me, as I really wanted to read Alameddine, and this was what forced me to do so. And I liked it, though I'm not sure if I did as much as my fellow bookseller Elizabeth Jordan at Bookpeople. I couldn't find a post in their blog where she talked about it, but here's where she calls it her favorite book of 2008. And then you should jump over and read their blog.
We are probably doing too many long books in a row for our in-store lit group book club. I also realize that I have to do some crowd pleasers. And at least one of the members is chomping at the bit to pick the books. I am leaning towards a Herte Muller for March. They are short.
That said, here are our next two selections:
Monday, January 4th, 7 PM
The Post Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver
My sister Merrill has wanted me to read this book forever. Before you get all fluffy on me, it was long-listed for the Man Booker. So there.
Monday, February 1st, 7 PM.
Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis
The Florentine Opera is offering discount passes to book club attendees. We may do a second day-time discussion.