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Rabih Alameddine: Koolaids
The subtitle to this book is The Art of War and it is indeed about war – two wars, to be precise. The first is the War in Lebanon – The Lebanese Civil War, with the Israelis fighting Hezbollah and the Syrians fighting the Christians. The second is the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.
Alameddine tells the story with multiple narrators. The first one is Mohammad. He is the main narrator and, presumably, based, at least in part, on Alameddine himself. He is a painter and writer, of Lebanese origin and, at the beginning of the book, is in hospital with AIDS. James, who is visiting him, is one of his few gay friends still alive. Mohammad had started painting when a boy. I was definitely a prodigy. By the age of four, I was able to draw anything I saw, realistically. By the age of six, I was copying drawings of the masters. His father asked to see some of his drawings but wondered why Mohammad only drew men, so Mohammad copied Goya’s Nuda Maja. However, the face was not clear so he painted the face of his mother instead. When he showed it to his father, his father hit him so hard, he ended up on the other side of the room. The painting later sold for $300,000.
Another Lebanese gay character with AIDS is Samir. We first meet him as a child in Beirut, when their apartment building is hit by shells and they have to dash for the basement, Samir, unlike the maid, remaining cool. We know about him from the diary of his mother. She remains nameless. The attack on the apartment building is maybe the worse day of her life, at least, though, according to her, there are three other days that are the worst day of her life. One of those days is the day she learns that Samir has AIDS. The Bashars had lived in Washington but had returned to Beirut soon after Samir was born (another worst day of her life), not least because Samir’s father’s department head called him a camel jockey. His wife wryly comments in her diary I would assume an educated man would know there are no camels in Lebanon..
Ben Baxter has been a corporate benefits consultant. He went on disability when he noticed his first Karposi’s sarcoma lesion but leads an active life. His lover was a painter, who essentially copied old masters. Ben decided to become a painter as well and set himself up. By general agreement, he is a terrible painter. He copies poor paintings of naked Asian boys. Ben is what the narrator calls a rice queen, i.e. a gay man sexually attracted to Asians. He even has an exhibition of his paintings, sure that the world will recognise his genius. It did not. By the start of this book, Ben has died.
Another narrator, a gay man with AIDS and a painter is Kurt. He had seen Mohammad’s paintings at an exhibition and had been inspired to follow in his footsteps. He will go on to become a good painter, but only after the death of his mother. Despite his AIDS and the deaths of his friends, he tends to have a very positive outlook on life.
Mohammad had started out as a painter and clearly has some success at it. But he wants to be a writer.
When I first started seeing my friends die, I wanted to write a book where all the characters died in the beginning, say in the first twenty-five pages or so. I never went beyond the incipit, which I thought was a damn good one. Death comes in many shapes and sizes, but it always comes.
His then lover, Scott (since dead, of course) does not think it a good idea but likes his idea of writing a novel of Jesus meeting the Prophet Mohammad, but he did not write that one either. What he does write and we are shown is a playlet featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, Arjuna, Krishnamurti, Julio Cortázar, and Tom Cruise. Other characters are added to it during the course of the book, including Mame Dennis, Rumi and Jesus. It is decidedly cynical, for example: Krisha: Why is it you humans constantly search for a deeper meaning? Julio Cortázar: To sell books. We will get samples of this playlet throughout the book.
Mohammad/Alameddine naturally comments a lot on the situation in Lebanon, about which he also has something of a cynical view. The Pope (John XXIII) was to come to Lebanon to suffer with the Lebanese. Mohammad is surprised that people believed this. The Pole never showed up, of course. The Syrians annihilated the Christians. Lebanon became a Syrian state. The Pope did brunch with Ronnie and Nancy. He has a particularly cynical view of the role of Israel and quotes a Swiss newspaper:
The Nobel Peace Prize winner Peres has innocent defenseless civilians killed. He pursues a political goal by hitting people who are completely powerless in this entire affair. When Assad, when the Iranians, when the Islamic groups, when the Palestinians, act with the same methods, we call this terrorism.
We see Lebanon as having been a place of refuge, where various groups could escape their neighbours and live peacefully in the hills. This has all gone and Lebanon is now a divided, violent country. The Lebanese are partially to blame. Mohammad’s initiation into homosexuality was to a Lebanese man called Georges. Georges joined the Phalangists and became something of a hit man. The rumors were he became the Phalange’s most ruthless killer. They said he took part in the Karantina massacre. We meet a woman who was born in East Beirut but now lives in West Beirut. To travel to East Beirut to have lunch with her friends, she must pass through a series of checkpoints. At one, she is stopped and propositioned by a local thug, Nicola Akra. We have learned a few pages previously that he will be found entwined with his lover and with fifty-two bullets in him, but not before she does have an affair with him.
What makes this novel good reading is the vignettes we get from the various narrators. One will tell us of something particularly unpleasant happening in Lebanon, while another will tell us of Mohammad’s success as a painter or his struggle with AIDS. We learn that Samir and his mother swap notes about the death of many of the people they know, his friends having died from AIDS while hers have been killed in Lebanon. We also learn that Mohammad and other Lebanese are not sure where they belong. In America, I fit, but I do not belong. In Lebanon, I belong, but I do not fit.. The Lebanese even developed a relationship to America similar to what the Europeans have, an unhealthy fascination mixed with simultaneous disdain.
He bemoans the loss of Lebanon, and Beirut, in particular, of the past. Seventeen different religious groups, Muslim and Christian sects, a Druze and a sizable Jewish community, flourished in Beirut. Then a war began. He criticises the saying that Beirut is the Paris of Lebanon. That is so fucking patronizing. I hate it. It is so fucking condescending. Beirut is probably the greatest city in the world. One of the oldest, if not the oldest, with more history in one of its neighborhoods than all the cities of the United States.
Inevitably, it is death that pervades this novel Most of the main characters end up dead and most of them from AIDS-related diseases or from bombs or bullets. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse make regular appearances throughout the book, again in a somewhat cynical, tongue-in-cheek way. He regularly quotes from famous authors, invariably about death and dying. Those few characters who do not die (as well as those that do) face death on a regular basis, either because their friends and relatives will die during the book or because they are well aware of the likelihood of their own death, from AIDS if they are in a homosexual relationship or from a bomb or a bullet.
It may seem strange to say that a book where most of the people die in very unpleasant ways was an enjoyable read. We can only be horrified by the two wars, which, as he points out, many of us have more or less forgotten (We all forget. We become pawns in a game we don’t understand. Drug companies sell us drugs which won’t heal us, but we need them. Money comes and goes, but we don’t see anything resembling a cure. We forget Israel used nail bombs in Lebanon, bombs which sent nails flying all over the place.). At the same time his often cynical, glib and even light-hearted approach to the situation makes the book easier reading than it might have been. However, you react to it, it is a very fine book indeed.
I can do no better than quote one of his final remarks:
Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years. R. D. Laing, a British psychiatrist. Need I say more?
First published in 1998 by Picador