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The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine
The Hakawati

dematteo, April 24, 2008

Rabih Alameddine’s new novel, "The Hakawati," is a sprawling, delicious panoply of over-the-top tales of love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skulduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else, all plaited into a set of parallel narratives which augment and illuminate each other. It is a masterful and startling accomplishment, a sort of literary maqam that twists and turns on recurrent themes and characters. The reader initially wonders how to relate all these seemingly unrelated stories, but quickly notices with growing awareness how they are really jazz riffs on single themes, embellishments that sear those themes into our consciousness so that we can’t get them out of our heads.

This is not the first time that Alameddine has used such literary structure. His first novel, "Koolaids," interlaced two parallel narratives, the worst years of the AIDS crisis and the civil war in Lebanon. There, as in "The Hakawati," the narratives resonated one with the other. And his second novel, "I, the Divine," an ingenious work all in first chapters of his narrator’s never-to-be-completed memoir, managed to give us multiple perspectives on events told by a single character, much as "The Hakawati" gives us multiple views of universal themes that echo through very different tales. But whereas the two earlier works had some rough edges and unpolished facets, "The Hakawati" is a perfect gem, burnished, intricate, complex, and with every feature serving to magnify its brilliance and dazzle. Here is a writer who has grown into his initial promise, perhaps beyond it.

It is easy to fall in love with the tales themselves; they are both currently relevant and timeless as well as entirely engrossing. The more discerning reader will also delight in the language of this book. Like other writers using English as a second language for their literary medium (Conrad and Nabokov come to mind), Alameddine is almost preternaturally aware of its sound and cadence, its semantic subtleties, its echos and reverberations of meanings. He is clearly besotted with English, and we follow him in a vertiginous trance like a whirling dervish, lost in the ecstasy of the moment. Alameddine is nothing short, it seems, of a literary magician, pulling our emotions out of his hat, our dreams from out his sleeve, and showing them to us in a way that forces us to see them anew. This novel is a masterpiece, unlike anything I’ve ever read before or ever hope to read again.
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