Never were so many tales interwoven from so many different worlds. This is the art of fiction at its height, so skillfully purveyed that the reader finds enjoyment predominating over the need to find morals, though morals are there. This is book as tapestry, intricately conceived so that it can be viewed as a simple large pattern, a novel with a plot, or as discrete squares and corners, each one unique yet inextricably a part of the whole fabric.
Author Amy Tan calls Rabih Alameddine "a writer of conscience, of self-consciousness, of subconsciouness, of the great big global unconscious." In this his
fourth book, he entwines the saga of a modern Lebanese family with the ancient tales of their culture, by the device of a grandfather who was a
hakawati, or traditional storyteller. Recalling his grandfather's oral histories both personal and universal, the central character, Osama al-Kharrat, allows us to experience the tragedy of a country wounded nearly to the death by conflict, and the beauty of its fading culture.
An example of the hakawati's art is the tale of an old king who fears death. His pet parrot brings him a seed from heaven that will produce a tree whose fruits will provide immortality. The tree flourishes and the king looks forward to his first bite of fruit, even though the parrot wisely advises him that it might not be a good idea to "outlive his loved ones." The first fruit is picked, but unbeknownst to the hopeful monarch, a drop of snake's venom has fallen on it. He hands it to his servant to taste, and the servant keels over dead. Furious, the king kills his faithful parrot, then watches in amazement when an old woman takes a piece of fruit from the same tree and is transformed into a lovely young maiden. But it is too late – the seeds of doubt and selfishness have done their damage, and the old king dies before he can eat another bite.
Put a fable like that against a backdrop of current events. Alameddine describes a family wedding: "Wartime parties are always inhibition-loosening, euphoric affairs…It was disconcerting to see a militiaman with dozens of fighters under his command, a killer of men, desperately avoid making eye contact. When I cornered him to offer best wishes, he interrupted by blurting, 'It's not my fault. It was supposed to be just fun,' sounding like a terrified four-year-old, his eyes expanding to encompass the top half of his face." Osama al-Kharrat, who has come home to spend time with his dying father, slips from fantasy to reality so deftly that the reader finally becomes relaxed and ready for each new mirage. We learn in one segment that his family's corporation "began to lose focus" after years of war, and that his father "showed up at the office when the bombs took a rest, but he didn't do much." In the very next moment, we are with Othman and Layla riding into Antioch after receiving a message from a carrier pigeon about the battle being waged there. "Combat, Layla advises her husband, "is not the best use of our talents. Let us leave that to the warriors."
Part reality, part dream, part morality play, part play on words, The Hakawati is book to own and cherish. It can be read a bit at a time, over a long time, because each bit is there to be savored, or it can be taken as a whole, a story with a beginning and end. Like Osama al-Kharrat, and possibly like the author himself, you the reader will find yourself both in a "bizarre land" and at home.