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Rabih Alameddine: The Angel of History

If you have read Rabih Alameddine’s first novel, both the tone and the subject matter of this book will be familiar to you. While the War in Lebanon has taken something of a back seat, the AIDS epidemic is very much to the fore. In addition, there are a few references to the War in Yemen and the Arab Spring.

Our hero, Ya’qub (he is adamant that that is his name, despite its frequent Anglicisation or, more accurately, Americanisation, to Jacob or Jake) was walking home one day in the rain, when he heard a noise. Further investigation revealed a pitiful kitten, clearly lost or abandoned. Despite the fact that his apartment building did not allow pets, he took it home, where it was welcomed by his flatmate, Odette. (Odette was his flatmate but definitely not his lover, as he was gay and she lesbian.) They persuaded the owners to let them keep it. The kitten soon showed that he had a mind of his own, breaking a wine glass and chewing clothes. However, a couple of weeks later, he finally revealed that he was no mere diva, he was Satan’s spawn. Odette had a hot date whom she was bringing back to the apartment and had prepared a wonderful dish of twenty-four oysters. While she went to change, the kitten ate three of the oysters, licked the brine off the other shells, scattering the remaining oysters and played with all of the molluscs. The cat was accordingly christened Behemoth (from Bulgakov’s cat). However, as Ya’qub points out, the problem with calling Satan’s cat is that you sometimes get Satan himself and Ya’qub gets Satan.

The book opens with Satan having invited a reluctant guest for an interview – Death (aided by the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who will also figure extensively in this book). They are in Ya’qub’s apartment, where Satan needs to be as since his friends died, because he has been so lonely without me, because his poems were getting more and more boring, his dreams more banal, and worst of all, he began to write stories. Ya’qub is not happy. He is mourning the death of six of his friends from AIDS-related diseases, particularly one he calls Doc, who was his lover. (Doc was a paediatrician, hence the nickname.) Indeed, he is so miserable that he decides to check himself into St. Francis (I loathe that narcissistic nincompoop of a saint, says Satan), a mental institution, the second time he has done this.

Much of the novel is Ya’kub recounting his life. His father was Lebanese, his mother Yemeni. His mother worked as a maid for a rich Lebanese family and his father, just fourteen, had sex with the maid. When the parents realised what happened, the pregnant woman was kicked out. The mother returned to Yemen and then, because she was so pretty, she was taken to Cairo to work in a brothel, where young Ya’qub grew up. His father later helped him but put him in a Catholic boarding school, where he was sexually abused by a nun and where he as very lonely and often bullied (for racist reasons). He ended up in San Francisco working for a law firm (as a word processor) and writing poetry. His mother completely disappeared, so much so that even Death did not know what happened to her.

He had various relationships but, in particular, there was Deke, a blond hulk, whom Ya’qub behaved entirely subserviently to (Humiliation was the blood that nourished his erections, shamed his sustenance) and who disappeared and then Doc, whom he really loved. Doc’s mother kept away while Doc was dying but, once Doc had died, she got into the apartment while Ya’qub was out and took almost everything. The police were not interested, taking the side of the grieving mother. Ya’qub even found his books at the local second-hand bookshop. It was Odette, who worked there, who “rescued” them for him and then moved in with him.

Much of the book is mocking satire, with Satan, Death and the Fourteen Holy Helpers arguing. Inevitably there is biting satire about the AIDS epidemic and, of course, satire about racism towards the Arabs. Even Death is racist: I tell you, Arabs make my life worth living, such pleasure they have given me through the years, just as much as Jews. In particular, there is a scathing scene where we meet some rich people who have Arabs as pets, as the rich people are allergic to cats, with discussions about what type of Arab to get (by far the worst Arabs are Lebanese novelists. They’re the cheapest because all they do is whine.)

Overall I have to say I did not enjoy this book as much Koolaids. There was a lot of rambling, particularly with Satan, Death and the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and I felt the book needed some editing. The point was clear, both about the issue of forgetting and the AIDS epidemic and (less so) about the racism towards Arabs and the troubles in the Middle East and Alameddine certainly makes his point about both issues. The story of Ya’qub is also well told. However, I felt both the passion and the humour of the early book had been replaced by pure bitterness, understandable no doubt but less fun to read. Nevertheless, I would still recommend this book but do not expect as much from it as from Koolaids.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Atlantic Monthly Press